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A World War II political allegory/fairy tale/coming of age drama wrapped up in a horror aesthetic
Part-World War II/concentration camp drama, part-fairy tale, part-psychological study of how even children can descend into barbarism given the right circumstances, part-allegory for what happened to Poland after German occupancy was replaced with Soviet occupancy, all wrapped up in the aesthetic and tonal qualities of a horror movie, writer/director Adrian Panek's Wilkolak is a parable of violence and lost innocence. The title is a rather clever play on the figure of the lycanthrope as found in literature dating back to at least the Middle Ages - the film depicts children who are ravenous and uncontrollable and dogs who are ravenous and uncontrollable, but there's no werewolf unless one combines the two groups on an abstract thematic level. Which, of course, is exactly what the title is inviting us to do. Kind of like Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) set in the immediate aftermath of the War, with elements of Charles Perrault's 1697 version of Le Petit Chaperon Rouge and William Golding's Lord of the Flies (1963) as well as films such as Démanty noci (1964), White Dog (1982), and Fehér isten (2014), Wilkolak is understated, subtle, and thematically layered.
February, 1945; Gross-Rosen concentration camp. Germany have all but lost the War, and the SS are in the process of abandoning the camp. Before they go, however, they force the inmates to do pointless exercises in the freezing night-time temperatures, with anyone resisting set upon by the camp's vicious German Shepherd guard dogs. When the SS depart, the Red Army liberate the camp, and a group of eight children are transported to a temporary orphanage housed in a dilapidated mansion in the forest. The group includes the de facto leader, Hanka (an excellent Sonia Mietielica), who, at 20, is the eldest by several years; Hanys (Nicolas Przygoda) a late addition to the group from another camp, who is not made especially welcome; the quiet and possibly irreparably disturbed Wladek (a very creepy Kamil Polnisiak), who resents Hanys's presence, and from whose perspective much of the film is told; and Mala (Matylda Ignasiak) a mute six-year-old girl. The only adult at the mansion is the bitter and disillusioned Jadwiga (the always excellent Danuta Stenka), who, despite herself, soon bonds with Hanka and Mala. As Hanka attempts to re-civilise the children (by having them use a knife and fork instead of their hands, for example), they must worry about marauding Soviet soldiers with rape on their mind. However, soon, a greater threat presents itself - the now feral camp dogs, driven mad with hunger, have made their way through the forest and have surrounded the mansion.
In essence, Wilkolak is a World War II pseudo-horror story about traumatised concentration camp children trapped in a house by vicious dogs. It absolutely should not work. But it absolutely does work, with all manner of subtle thematic layering. Of course, the main theme is barbarism; the idea that the children have been dehumanised by their time in the camp. One of the first scenes upon arriving at the mansion sees several of them cruelly chasing a rat, which they then stamp to death, recalling how the SS were treating the prisoners just minutes earlier, and it's telling that the first instance of violence after we leave Gross Rosen is perpetrated not by a German, a Soviet, or a dog, but by the children themselves.
Of course, this highlights the question of who exactly is the eponymous Wilkolak. Panek approaches this question by is a parable of violence and lost innocence. The title is a rather clever play on the figure of the lycanthrope as found in literature dating back to at least the Middle Ages - the film depicts children who are ravenous and uncontrollable and dogs who are ravenous and uncontrollable, but there's no werewolf unless one combines the two groups on an abstract thematic level. Which, of course, is exactly what the title is inviting us to do. Kind of like Assault on Precinct 13 set in the immediate aftermath of the War, with elements of Charles Perrault's 1697 version of Le Petit Chaperon Rouge and William Golding's Lord of the Flies as well as films such as Démanty noci, White Dog, and Fehér isten, Wilkolak is understated, subtle, and thematically layered.
February 1945; Gross-Rosen concentration camp. Germany have all but lost the War, and the SS are in the process of abandoning the camp. Before they go, they force the inmates to do pointless exercises in the freezing night-time temperatures, with anyone resisting set upon by the camp's vicious German Shepherd guard dogs. When the SS depart, the Red Army liberate the camp, and a group of eight children are transported to a temporary orphanage housed in a dilapidated mansion in the forest. The group includes the de facto leader, Hanka (an excellent Sonia Mietielica), who, at 20, is the eldest by several years; Hanys (Nicolas Przygoda) a late addition to the group from another camp, who is not made especially welcome; the quiet and possibly irreparably disturbed Wladek (a very creepy Kamil Polnisiak), who resents Hanys's presence, and from whose perspective much of the film is told; and Mala (Matylda Ignasiak) a mute six-year-old girl. The only adult at the mansion is the bitter and disillusioned Jadwiga (the always excellent Danuta Stenka), who, despite herself, soon bonds with Hanka and Mala. As Hanka attempts to re-civilise the children (by having them use a knife and fork instead of their hands, for example), they must worry about marauding Soviet soldiers with rape on their mind. However, soon, a greater threat presents itself - the now feral camp dogs, driven mad with hunger, have made their way through the forest and have surrounded the mansion.
In essence, Wilkolak is a World War II pseudo-horror story about traumatised concentration camp children trapped in a house by vicious dogs. It absolutely should not work. But it absolutely does work, with all manner of subtle thematic layering. Of course, the main theme is barbarism; the idea that the children have been dehumanised by their time in the camp. One of the first scenes upon arriving at the mansion sees several of them cruelly chasing a rat, which they then stamp to death, recalling how the SS were treating the prisoners just minutes earlier, and it's telling that the first instance of violence after we leave Gross Rosen is perpetrated not by a German, a Soviet, or a dog, but by the children themselves.
Of course, this highlights the question of who exactly is the eponymous Wilkolak. Panek approaches this question by drawing a lot of parallels between the children and the dogs; both are hungry, both have been taught barbarism, both are aggressive and feral, both move in packs, both need significant reconditioning. Indeed, just as is the case with the dogs, Hanka says of the children, "they can't go hungry or they'll kill each other", to which Jadwiga says, "then let them kill each other". This draws yet another parallel - neither group are seen as worth saving, neither is considered human; to quote King Lear, "Man's life's as cheap as beast's".
Working in tandem with such parallels, the title is metaphorical - neither the children nor the dogs are the Wilkolak, yet both are. That this is so is indicated only moments after the scene with the rat, as we see the children happily playing tag. It's an extraordinary contrast, which suggests for every moment where their traumatised dysfunction rises to the surface, so too are there moments where their childish innocence shines through (i.e. they are half-human, half-beast), a contrast which recurs in various guises throughout - for example, for Wladek's psychological trauma, there's Mala's gentle innocence; and although Hanka makes the children sit at the table and use cutlery, another scene sees them fighting over a tin of dog food, which they spill on the floor, before devouring with their hands.
The most obvious aesthetic element of the film is that it employs classic horror tropes throughout - POV shots of the dogs in the forest; the grisly discovery of a mutilated corpse; a slow-motion shot as one of the children is being chased by a dog; the dilapidated and isolated house, both sanctuary and prison; Dominik Danilczyk's ominous photography which often shoots from around corners and within shadows. Additionally, much of the film is focalised by Wladek, which gives the story an element of intimacy and emotional stoicism (insofar as Wladek is emotionally shut down). Grafting the story of concentration camp survivors onto a horror template may seem crass and disrespectful, but Panek pulls it off magnificently.
There are a few problems here and there, but none are especially serious. For example, the film lags a little in the long middle act, which sees the dogs surround the house, and which becomes a little repetitious, with the tension slackening somewhat. This act could have done with having maybe ten minutes or so shaved off. Another small issue is that apart from Hanka, Hanys, and Wladek, none of the other children receives any characterisation. Mala gets a little backstory, but that's about it, with the rest of the group essentially functioning as background extras, often to the point of blurring into one another.
These small issues notwithstanding, however, Wilkolak is an exceptional film. What really struck me was that despite its use of horror tropes and a fairy tale aesthetic, there's hardly anything here that couldn't have happened in historical actuality. This is part of the reason that the film never comes across as exploitative or distasteful; because it maintains a realist stance throughout. All things considered, this is a thematically fascinating, brilliantly made film.
Ready or Not (2019)
An entertaining horror-comedy that takes aim at the decadence and insularity of the 1%
Written by Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy, and directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, Ready or Not is a horror-comedy and social satire that comically exaggerates the anxieties attendant with marrying into a wealthy family and mocks the insular nature of such families, so obsessed with their wealth that they've become disconnected from the real world. In the tradition of Richard Connell's 1924 short story, "The Most Dangerous Game", the film is about elites hunting common folk, but it tells its story with tongue firmly in cheek. And whilst it can be a tad episodic at times, and the manner in which it presents some of its violence is somewhat problematic, this is a very enjoyable and funny film that's well worth checking out.
It is the wedding day of Grace (an exceptional Samara Weaving) and Alex Le Domas (Mark O'Brien), whose family earned their fortune making board games, and are now decadently wealthy. Several years previously, Alex turned his back on the family, and it's only since he met Grace (a foster child eager to have a family to call her own) that he has started to rebuild bridges. His mother Becky (Andie MacDowell) and father Tony (a barely sane Henry Czerny) are thrilled to have him back, and credit Grace with his return. His aunt Helene (a hilariously acerbic Nicky Guadagni), however, makes no bones about the fact that she hates Grace. Elsewhere there's Alex's brother Daniel (Adam Brody), an alcoholic locked in a loveless marriage to Charity (Elyse Levesque), and their cocaine-addicted sister Emilie (a wonderfully hapless Melanie Scrofano) and her husband Fitch (a scene-stealing Kristian Bruun). Shortly after the ceremony, Alex explains a strange family tradition to Grace - whenever someone new marries into the clan, they must participate in a game, chosen at random by a mechanised box using a deck of cards (Charity gor checkers). At an austere ceremony, Grace is asked to operate the box and she receives the hide and seek card, with Tony explaining that the only way for her to win is to stay hidden until dawn. And so, Grace hides in the mansion, unaware that the family (sans Alex) are arming themselves with crossbows, axes, hunting rifles, and assorted antique weaponry.
The film's various psychoanalytical/satirical subtexts are fairly obvious - a lampooning of blue blood families clueless as to how the real world works, a savage deconstruction of the institution of marriage, and a gynocentric celebration of a woman fighting back against old-world patriarchy. In relation to these last two themes, nowhere are they more apparent than in Grace's wedding dress, that most classic symbol of marriage, which becomes dirtier and more damaged as the film progresses, with costume designer Avery Plewes using the dress to show the stages of Grace's symbolic deconstruction of the institution of marriage (to survive the night, she must make the dress more conducive to running and hiding, which involves a lot of ripping and tearing).
Concerning the film's engagement with wealth, essentially it suggests that, yes, as we all know, the rich are very different from you and I, but could it be that not only are they different, maybe they're actually evil? Of course, it's not suggesting this with anything even approaching realism, and much of the film's humour comes from the Le Domas family itself; they're wealthy, evil, violent, and powerful, but so too are they hilariously incompetent. For example, it's been so long since anyone has got the hide and seek card that everyone is a little fuzzy on the rules, and they spend a good chunk of the film arguing with one another about the hunt - Fitch and Charity want to use modern weapons, but Tony maintains they have to use antique weaponry, nor are they allowed to use the castle's security cameras to track Grace.
This all goes back to a century-old deal made between the family's original patriarch Victor and a mysterious traveller named Mr Le Bail, who promised Victor that the family would become hugely wealthy, but only if they maintained the tradition of having new family members play a game on their wedding night, laying out the rules for what was to happen if they got the hide and seek card. Tony argues that the rules can be no different from those originally established by Le Bail, but, really, his argument never amounts to much more than "tradition...reasons". The film gets a lot of laughs out of showing characters trying to get to grips with their weapon - from Fitch taking time out from the hunt to look up "how to use a crossbow" videos on YouTube to Emilie accidentally dispatching several maids due to her inability to handle her weapon.
Another theme, although one not developed to the extent of the above, is religion. Le Bail, for example, is believed by the family to be a demonic figure, and his name, obviously enough, is an anagram of Belial, the demon from the Tanakh who would later form the basis for the Christian and Jewish depictions of Satan. On the other hand, Grace's name most likely references the idea of Divine grace. Elsewhere, the film depicts a pit of slaughtered goats, alluding to ritual animal sacrifice, a pre-Christian practice. Goats are also important in Christianity, especially in the practice of scapegoating, whereby a goat takes upon it the sins of the community and is cast into the desert, symbolically removing the taint of those sins (as per Leviticus 16:8-10). Along the same lines, Grace injures her hand on a nail, in a veiled reference to the Stigmata. However, whether or not we're supposed to interpret her as a Christ figure is hard to say as, although these references are interesting in isolation, they never really coalesce into anything concrete.
Looking at some other problems, the film is, generally speaking, very slight; it's short and it's silly, and it's not going to change your life or lead you down the road of esoteric revolution. The violence is also (somewhat) problematic. The film maintains the stance that the rich are insane and the violence they mete out is contemptible. However, some of the biggest laughs are reserved for Emilie's accidental killing of the maids. And I have to admit, I found the way she haplessly dispatches two of them exceptionally funny. Also funny is that after one of the kills, the family are trying to have a conversation, which is continually interrupted by the gurgling of a mortally wounded maid; until Helene takes an axe to her head. And again, I have to admit, I laughed a lot at that scene, even though I recognised that the film was essentially asking the audience to see this violence as funny but some of the violence elsewhere as not so much. In this sense, it kind of wants to have its cake and eat it, picking and choosing when the audience should laugh; it takes Grace's stakes seriously but also encourages us to laugh at some (and only some) of the violence elsewhere, which is problematically inconsistent.
Nevertheless, as I said, these scenes did make me laugh, so make of that what you will. Although Ready or Not is slight, its satirical ire is focused, even if the tendency towards irreverence doesn't always chime with the tone of the socio-political agenda. Allegorically skewering inherited wealth, marriage, tradition, even religion, the film suggest that with their atavistic rules and sense of entitlement, the Le Domas family embody the concept that old-money can lead to insularity from modernity. Offering us a match, the film suggests that perhaps the only way to deal with such irrelevancies and their sense of self-importance is to burn them to the ground. And it has a blast showing us why.
Ad Astra (2019)
Despite some utterly absurd diversions (chase scene! horror scene! shoot-out scene!), this is a decent science-fiction narrative
A short while ago, the mesmerising Aniara (2018) pondered the insignificance of mankind when considered against the infinity of space and time. An esoteric science-fiction film in the tradition of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Solyaris (1972), it attempted to convey the universe's near-inconceivable vastness and the psychological ramifications of what it might feel like to be lost in such a vastness. This is the lineage into which Ad Astra wishes to step, but for me, it has more in common with the excellent Sunshine (2007) and the flawed but entertaining Interstellar (2014) - irrespective of its themes and tropes, it remains a mainstream Hollywood movie, wherein the demand for crowd-pleasing content often clashes with the desire for esotericism. In the case of Sunshine, this clash took the form of a genre shift into horror that Boyle doesn't fully pull off, and in the case of Interstellar, it's a predictable and unnecessary third-act twist. And so we have Ad Astra, where it's in the form of an overly convenient resolution and some of the most ludicrous narrative diversions I've seen since the abomination that was Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi (2017), diversions which seem to belong in a different film entirely, so tonally unrelated are they to everything else (space pirates! enraged simians! knife-fight/shoot-out!). Which is not to say that I disliked the film - I didn't; even if the narrative never manages to get beyond the "Heart of Darkness in space" template and the script relies far, far too heavily on a sub-Terrence Malick voiceover. The craft on display is exceptional and the story is thought-provoking and generally entertaining, with a terrific central performance, and some spectacular visuals (especially in the IMAX format). But it could have been so much better.
Set at an unspecified point in the near future, space travel has become routine, with the moon not unlike any major city on Earth. As the film begins, a series of energy surges originating near Neptune leave much of Earth and the moon without power. 29 years previously, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), left Earth as the leader of the Lima Project, a mission aimed at establishing contact with alien civilisations. Travelling to the same region near Neptune from which the surges are now emanating, 16 years into the mission, all contact was lost. SpaceCom presumed the crew dead, but now they fear that Clifford may be behind the surges, and with an antimatter power core at his disposal, if he has become unhinged, he could create a chain reaction that would eradicate all life in the solar system (it's best not to dwell too much on the script's fundamental misrepresentation of how matter and antimatter interact). And so Maj. Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), Clifford's son, is tasked with travelling to a secure long-range communications base on Mars and recording a message for Clifford in the hopes he might respond. Of course, it's no spoiler to say that the mission doesn't exactly go smoothly.
Written by James Gray and Ethan Gross, and directed by Gray, Ad Astra wastes no time in tying us rigidly to Roy's perspective; it opens with a POV shot from inside his helmet, and the first words we hear are him speaking in voiceover. This sets up the narrative to come, as Roy remains the sole focaliser throughout - we learn things as he learns then and we never experience anything with which he is not directly involved. The fact that the film is set amongst the stars, but remains always tied to Roy's perceptions allows Gray to fashion a narrative that's both massive in scope yet emotionally intimate. He's aided immensely in this by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, whose gorgeous 35mm celluloid photography effortlessly captures the overwhelming scale of the milieu, but also frequently frames Pitt in tight close-ups.
Depending on your perspective, Pitt's portrayal of Roy is either one of the film's most laudable aspects or one of its most alienating. Initially played as emotionally closed off (he tells us in VO, "I've been trained to compartmentalise my emotions"), he's depicted as cold and distant. This stoicism, however, slowly starts to erode as his mission begins to go wrong, although there are a few early hints that all is not well - for example, his fixation on the breakup of his marriage to Eve (a thankless and largely wordless performance by a blink-and-you-miss-her Liv Tyler), or his observation of the crew of the Cepheus (which takes him from the moon to Mars), "they seem at ease with themselves. What must that be like?". His performance is such that one viewer might praise it for shunning emotional grandstanding even as another might criticise it as too taciturn. Personally, I think it's a terrifically modulated and minimalist performance in which he uses the lack of outward emotion to inform the character's emotional beats, relying on subtlety and nuanced gesture.
Thematically, on the most basic of levels, Ad Astra is the story of two men obsessed with their profession to the detriment of all else, a theme not unusual in Gray's filmography, receiving its most thorough exploration in Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) and Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) in Gray's masterpiece, The Lost City of Z (2016). Like most of Gray's films, Ad Astra is heavily androcentric, as are its most obvious narrative influences - Heart of Darkness (1899) and Apocalypse Now (1979). In the reformulation of the narrative template, Roy is Charles Marlow (Benjamin Willard in the film), whilst Clifford is Kurtz, with the parallels obvious enough - a conflicted man sent to find a brilliant and pioneering man who has gone off-grid and who must be stopped, with the journey proving to be as much about travelling into the self as reaching a specific geographical destination.
An especially interesting theme is commercialism, which is introduced when Roy takes a Virgin America shuttle to the moon, whilst an exterior shot of a lunar base shows signs for, amongst others, Applebee's, DHL, and Subway. And since the moon is now so like Earth, it has become blighted by many of the same issues as Earth; crime, political division, materialism. Indeed, in VO, Roy laments how sickened Clifford would be with what the moon has become, pointing out it's simply a "re-creation of what we're running from on Earth".
However, for all these positives, there are some significant problems. Firstly, there are three utterly ridiculous pseudo-action scenes (a chase, a horror scene, and a knife-fight/shoot-out) which seem to have come from another movie entirely. Imagine if in 2001, instead of attempting to outwit HAL, David Bowman (Keir Dullea) had pulled out a shotgun and engaged in a running battle with androids controlled by the AI. Ridiculous? Of course. The three scenes in Ad Astra are only slightly less so. The third at least is the springboard for the second half of the movie, but it's still a monumentally silly way for Gray and Gross to advance the plot. The first two scenes, however, serve no such purpose - remove them from the film, and you'd have to change virtually nothing in the surrounding material - they're that disconnected and irrelevant. They lead nowhere, reveal nothing about the character or his psychology, and have no connection to the esoteric themes found elsewhere.
Another problem is the overly neat and anti-climatic finale. I'm led to believe this ending was a reshoot after test audiences responded poorly to the original (and far superior) ending - look it up online; the originally scripted ending made a lot more sense and was as thematically fascinating as it was existentially audacious.
The other big problem is the VO. I can count on one hand the number of times VO has been done well in film - there's the hard-boiled noir films of the 40s and 50s, the narration of Apocalypse Now, the work of Terrence Malick, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)...and, well, that's about it really. The VO is obviously intended to function in much the same way as Willard's in Apocalypse Now, providing some factual info, but also probing the soul of the character. However, the problem is that most of the time, the voice is describing something we can see plain as day on the screen. Pitt's performance is strong enough that the VO is unnecessary. You know the way the best films show rather than tell and the worst tell rather than show? Ad Astra does both, and it's hugely distracting. By the half-way stage, I was sick of Roy's cod-philosophical ramblings that aspire to portentousness, but end up coming across as someone trying and failing to imitate Malick.
With all that said, however, it's a testament to the story the film tells that despite these hurdles, I still enjoyed it. Pitt's performance is excellent, and what the storyline says about man's place in the universe is unexpected and fascinating. The original ending was infinitely superior, the VO is a huge misstep, and the action detours are ludicrous, but this is still an entertaining movie. It's not a patch on Lost City of Z, but the manner in which Gray juxtaposes an intimate tone with such massive themes is really impressive. In essence, Ad Astra is a fable about the importance of transient human connection, played out against the backdrop of the infinite, and despite some not insignificant problems, it's well worth checking out.
Rambo: Last Blood (2019)
Guns, carnage, xenophobia - everything you could want from a Rambo movie; hugely entertaining
In the torrent of negative reviews that greeted Rambo: Last Blood, one that stood out was Richard Roeper's zero-star rant for The Chicago Sun Times, in which he said of the film, "this is a gratuitously violent, shamelessly exploitative, gruesomely sadistic and utterly repellent piece of trash". I agree with pretty much all of that sentence. And I loved it. But let me segue into asking a question. Which is the more "responsible" - the hard R-rated movie that makes no bones about its violent content, or the equally violent PG-13 movie that removes the gore but leaves the savagery? Last Blood is only moderately more violent than most of today's action blockbusters, but it's a damn-sight more honest in its depiction of the impact of violence on the human body. It's like the old joke about The A-Team (1983) - it didn't matter what the level of violence was, the fact that we never saw blood and never saw anyone die meant it was family entertainment. Last Blood is not family entertainment.
And it's awesome.
Now, make no mistake, it's no masterpiece. In fact, it's barely a movie at all (the script is so rudimentary, it rivals the dizzying complexities of Rocky IV (1985)), and it's by far the least political entry in the Rambo franchise thus far. It's xenophobic. It may stoke irrational fears about the evils of Mexico and permeability of the southern border. It's a film in which Rambo doesn't just kill his enemies, he kills them several times just to be sure. It's a film in which on no less than two occasions, Rambo uses his bare hands to extract internal organs. It's a film that's an immensely enjoyable no-holds-barred revenge actioner that's about as interested in political correctness as it is in millennial angst. Which is to say, not even remotely.
And it's awesome.
It has been 11 years since Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) returned to his father's ranch in Bowie, Arizona. His father has died, but Rambo remains at the ranch, breaking in horses and sharing his home with live-in housekeeper Maria Beltran (Adriana Barraza) and her teenage granddaughter Gabriela (Yvette Monreal), who he helped to raise. All is quiet until Gabriela is contacted from Mexico by her friend Gizelle (Fenessa Pineda), who tells her she has located Gabriela's father Manuel (Marco de la O), who walked out on her and her dying mother when she was still a child. Although advised by both Rambo and Maria not to go to Mexico, she ignores their warnings. However, on her first night there, she is drugged and abducted by the Martinez brothers, Hugo (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and Victor (Óscar Jaenada). When Rambo comes looking for her, he earns a beating for his trouble, and so, realising he can't fight the cartel on their terms, he decides to lure them back to Arizona, where he can fight them on his.
Undeniably, for better or worse, the Rambo films have always found a way to tap into some of the major geopolitical issues of the era in which they were made. Introduced in David Morrell's superb 1972 novel, the character was brought to the screen 10 years later in First Blood (1982). One of many Vietnam-vet-comes-home-and-is-rejected-by-society films made in the years following the end of the Vietnam War (1955-1975), it presented Rambo as an embodiment of the problems of unaddressed-PTSD. Made in the second year of Ronald Reagan's presidency, it argued that you can't create killing machines for use in a foreign war and then simply bring them home and expect them to reintegrate. The next two films also took place during Reagan's presidency, at a time when the wounds of Vietnam were still fresh, but the idea of American exceptionalism had started to morph into a kind of over-compensatory machismo. This saw Rambo transition from being an allegory for the struggles of vets to an embodiment of jingoistic Regan-era American militarism and juvenile wish-fulfilment (in the second film, Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), he literally gets a second crack at winning in Vietnam). In essence, he had changed from a symbol for the psychological damage of war to an undefeatable representative of American military might. The fourth film, Rambo (2008), came out in the final year of George W. Bush's presidency at a time when the US (in no small part because of an illegal war) had once again risen to the position of global police force, although the fact that he's on a mission to save, of all things, Christian aid workers, is a bit on the nose even for this franchise.
Which brings us to Last Blood. Written by Stallone and Matthew Cirulnick, from a story by Dan Gordon, and directed by Adrian Grunberg, Last Blood comes in the fourth year of Donald Trump's presidency, and sees Rambo facing off against the bad hombres south of the border (they bring drugs, they bring crime, although some, he assumes, are good people). And with a border this porous (characters easily cross over with weaponry, drugs, dead bodies, and decapitated heads), the only person who can protect the US of A from such villains is Don J. Trumpo...sorry, John J. Rambo.
However, having said that, this is far and away the least political film of the franchise. Whilst the first and second both dealt with Vietnam, the third with the Soviet-Afghan war, and the fourth with the Myanmar Civil War, Last Blood doesn't explicitly deal with a real-world conflict and is not set in an inherently politicised milieu. And this ties into a crucial point - in moving out of the arena of politics, the storyline is more personal, which is important insofar as Rambo himself is presented somewhat differently, showing more emotion than we've seen from him since the opening few scenes of First Blood. The film also focuses on his PTSD, which had been relatively ignored in the three previous films. Here, not only is he shown as still suffering the effects, he actually leans into it, using his trauma to motivate himself. In this sense, the early parts of the film work extremely well - see Rambo in a home, we see him trying to keep his demons at bay, we see him, for arguably the first time, with something to lose.
However, for better or worse, the film's big selling point isn't the political allegory or the character's psychology - it's the action, the "suit-up" moment when Rambo unleashes hell. Here, the entire third-act is one long action scene, and it's entertaining enough to temper much of the political immaturity and distasteful stereotypes that lead up to it. Well shot by director Grunberg and cinematographer Brendan Galvin, it's kind of the inverse of the sleek action scenes found in the John Wick films - it's dark, gritty, and brutal, and whereas those films often create the impression of near weightlessness, here, it's the tangible physicality that works so well, the sense of visceral devastation that results from a particular impact rather than anything balletic.
Of course, a vital aspect of any Rambo movie is that a lot of what some people love will be the exact things that others despise. In this case, it's the laughably simplistic politics, the barely disguised xenophobia, the brutal violence, and the fetishisation of weaponry. On this last point, I can't recall, off the top of my head, another film which is so blatant in its glorification of guns, whether it's the long tracking shots of Rambo's collection of rifles, or the way the film lingers on the destruction they mete out.
The film's handling of the Mexican portion of the story is a good example of how you either decry the stupidity or celebrate the ridiculousness. The character of Gizelle, for example, dresses like the only research the costume department did was to watch Stand and Deliver (1988), whilst poor Gabriela gets abducted after ONE night in Mexico. And as for the aforementioned porousness of the border, I'm not sure if it's appallingly lazy writing or satirical genius, but Rambo gets back into the US by finding a quiet section and ploughing his truck through the wire mesh fence. He wouldn't have been able to do that if there'd been a wall.
A criticism that I would treat a little more seriously, however, is that although this is supposed to be the last chapter in the franchise, there's no sense of finality. Nothing happens at any point where you could say to yourself, "that seems a fitting send-off for the character". In fact, the previous film felt more final than this one. Another problem is the script. Much as Rocky IV was two boxing matches loosely tied together by montages, Last Blood is 40 minutes of plot loosely connected to an extended action scene via, you guessed it, a series of montages.
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention David Morrell's opinion on the film. After seeing it, he wrote on Twitter, "the film is a mess. Embarrassed to have my name associated with it", and later he told Newsweek, "I felt degraded and dehumanised after I left the theatre. Instead of being soulful, this new movie lacks one. I felt I was less a human being for having seen it."
Make of that what you will.
In many ways, Last Blood is a hilariously bad film. But it's also a hugely entertaining film. Sure, the violence is off the chart and the politics are hilariously naïve at best, dangerously reductionist at worse. But it's extremely well shot, Stallone gives a predictably strong performance, the action is intense, and none of the problems are so large as to render the film unenjoyable. Approach it with the right frame of mind, and you'll find much to appreciate.
A somewhat rudimentary bio-doc that isn't especially insightful, but which features excellent archival material
Directed by Marina Zenovich, Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind is a fairly rudimentary bio-doc that fails to live up to its subtitle; the Robin Williams presented in the film is no more knowable than Robin Williams the stand-up comedian or Robin Williams the Academy Award-winning actor. It asks questions about Williams, gives him a platform, marvels at his on-stage energy, but never manages to elicit or elucidate much in the way of genuine psychological insight. Perhaps a little too respectful of her subject, Zenovich avoids, for the most part, hagiography, but so too does she tend to gloss over some of the darker aspects, although it's certainly laudable that she refuses to allow the manner of his death become the defining moment of his life. What the film most definitely does have going for it, however, is the superbly chosen archival footage, which shows Williams at the absolute height of his powers. And, ultimately, the quality of much of this footage offsets the film's failure to offer anything resembling a deep dive into his thought-processes or private life.
The film covers all the major biographical beats that you'd expect - his 1971 appearance as Tranio in James Dunn's Wild West-themed production of The Taming of the Shrew at the College of Marin and subsequently the Edinburgh Festival Fringe; his 1973 scholarship to Juilliard, where he and Christopher Reeve were the only students selected by John Houseman to join the Advanced Program; the beginnings of his stand-up comedy career; his cocaine and alcohol addiction; his casting as the alien Mork in a fifth season episode of Happy Days (1974), where his largely improvised performance was so well received, it led to a spin-off show, Mork & Mindy (1978); his 1978 marriage to Valerie Velardi; the death of his friend John Belushi in 1982 from a heroin overdose, which led to Williams getting clean; his film career; his celebrated appearance alongside Steve Martin in Mike Nichols's 1988 production of Waiting for Godot at the Lincoln Centre; his divorce from Velardi in 1988; his marriage to Marsha Garces Williams in 1989 and subsequent divorce in 2008; his 2009 open heart surgery; his 2011 marriage to Susan Schneider; checking himself into rehab in 2014 to treat his remerging alcoholism; his diagnosis with early stage Parkinson's; and ultimately, his suicide.
Interviewees include Velardi, David Letterman, Pam Dawber, Billy Crystal, Zak Williams, Steve Martin, and Whoopi Goldberg, with the obvious absentees being Garces, Schneider and his second and third children, Zelda Williams and Cody Williams. Their absence is never mentioned and it leaves a significant lacuna, especially towards the conclusion, where Schneider's insights would have been invaluable (her article, "The terrorist inside my husband's brain", from the September 2016 issue of Neurology, is a must-read).
As you would expect, a major area of interest is Williams's hyperkinetic brand of comedy, with the film's great strength lying not in the talking head interviews, but in the archival footage. We see the outtakes from his improvisations explaining the uses of a stick during his 1991 appearance on Sesame Street (1969); his 1986 performance at the Met Opera House; and his hilarious improvised "acceptance speech" at the 2003 Critics Choice Awards, where he was nominated for Best Actor alongside Jack Nicholson and Daniel Day-Lewis, and the result was declared a draw between Nicholson and Day-Lewis ("it's been a wonderful evening for me, to walk away with nothing; coming here with no expectations, leaving here with no expectations. It's pretty much been a Buddhist evening for me").
The film also tosses out some interesting facts. For example, his father was a very stern man, and it was when a young Williams saw him laugh at Jonathan Winters, that he first began to consider a career in comedy. Also interesting is how he changed the manner in which sitcoms were shot. When he started on Mork & Mindy in 1978, all American sitcoms were shot with a basic three-camera set-up (one captured the wide shot, and the others captured close-ups). However, due to his unpredictable improvisational style, he would rarely stick to his marks, making it virtually impossible for close-ups, as the camera operators never knew where he was going to end up. And so, the show's executive producer Garry Marshall introduced a fourth camera, whose sole purview was to follow Williams as he moved about the set.
The use of audio interviews with Williams, which act as narration, see him more contemplative, explaining, "I don't tell jokes, I use characters as a vehicle for me. I seldom just talk as myself." Which is, of course, a key admission, and which is one of the main themes of the film - the division between public and private. However, this also brings us to one of the film's main failings - the lack of exploration of the dissonance between these two aspects of his personality (the manic public comedian and the pensive private man); it's touched on a few times, but it's never explored in any detail. Indeed, for a film which literally invites the audience into the subject's mind, there's very little of any psychological worth to be found here.
Another problem is Zenovich's (perhaps understandable) unwillingness to depict with any degree of completeness some of the darker aspects of his life. Lip-service is given to much of it, but nothing more. So, for example, Elayne Boosler talks about being his girlfriend whilst giving her blessing for him to be with other women; Billy Crystal explains that Williams was addicted to audience reaction, which gave him a sense of validation; Steve Martin discusses how difficult Williams found it to stay sober. However, apart from these brief moments during the talking head interviews, Zenovich never examines any of the issues thrown up. And as much as they are glossed over, there's nothing at all on Dawber's claim that Williams fondled her and exposed himself to her the set of Mork & Mindy. I can certainly understand why it's been left out, especially insofar as Dawber herself has said she was never offended or threatened ("there was nothing lascivious about it, in his mind. It was just Robin being Robin, and he thought it would be funny"), but it's rather conspicuous by its absence.
The film's structure is also a little unusual, focusing on his rise in the 70s and 80s and the last few years of his life, without spending a huge amount of time looking at the intervening years. There's next to nothing, for example, on his film work, with Zenovich devoting only a few seconds to his Oscar win for Good Will Hunting (1997). Because of this, when his 2014 suicide comes, it feels abrupt, with much of the narrative tapestry that brought him to that place skipped.
Nevertheless, although these problems are significant, fans of Williams will enjoy Come Inside My Mind. The film does lack any kind of psychological depth, and although the argument could be made that Williams was notoriously difficult to know even in real life, hence we shouldn't expect a documentary to lay him bare, the fact is that Zenovich doesn't really try. And I can't help but think that presenting some of the darker times with a more journalistic sense of objectivity would have been a more truthful approach. It wouldn't have tarnished his legacy, but it would have made for a deeper film. In the end, Williams was consumed by his demons, but Come Inside My Mind has sidelined those same demons as much as possible, hoping, perhaps, that we remember the laughter, without dwelling on the sadness.
Extra Ordinary (2019)
A charming Irish ghost story that is consistently hilarious; but Chris de Burgh is definitely going to sue
The debut feature from writer/directors Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman, Extra Ordinary is an unexpectedly hilarious Irish ghost story. I'm sure there are other examples in the Irish comedy/ghost subgenre, but the only one I can think of off-hand is Neil Jordan's well-intentioned but poorly executed High Spirits (1988), a film built almost exclusively on "look how strange the Oorish are" humour. Extra Ordinary, on the other hand, isn't about the Irishness of the characters at all, focusing instead on their inherent decency, and, in the case of the villain, his tendency to call upon Astaroth so as to achieve musical success. As you do. It's a quant film in all the right ways, leaning into the trope of small-town people forced to deal with situations far beyond their ability, and it gets a lot of mileage out of just how completely out of their depth they find themselves. The humour is low-key and irreverent, but it doesn't rely on winking at an audience it assumes to be Irish - I would imagine most of the laughs will translate well to international markets. Some of the nuances will certainly be lost, but, by and large, the film is working with a broader palette by juxtaposing the supernatural with the utterly banal. And it works exceptionally well.
In an unspecified rural Irish town, Rose Dooley (stand-up comedienne Maeve Higgins, who is also credited with "additional writing") is a lonely driving instructor. Gifted with the ability to talk to ghosts, Rose hasn't communicated with the dead since a childhood incident with a haunted pothole (don't ask) left her father, paranormal researcher Vincent Dooley (Risteard Cooper, playing the character as if he's in an ultra-serious existentialist drama), dead. When Rose is contacted by Martin Martin (a superb Barry Ward) asking for a driving lesson, she happily obliges, and the two click. However, when Rose learns that his real reason for contacting her is that he and his daughter, Sarah (Emma Coleman) are being haunted by Martin's deceased wife, Bonnie, she is unimpressed. Meanwhile, one-hit-wonder Christian Winter (a hilarious Will Forte in full caricature mode) is desperate to make a comeback, and has abducted a local virgin, who he must sacrifice to Astaroth on the night of the blood moon. Which wouldn't be a problem except that his wife, Claudia (a spectacularly acerbic Claudia O'Doherty), accidentally causes the young girl to, well, explode. With the blood moon in a couple of days, Christian must find another virgin, and lands on Sarah. Deducing that Sarah is imprisoned in a "holding spell", Rose tells Martin that the only way they can save her is by collecting the ectoplasm of seven ghosts, and they can only do that by letting each ghost temporarily possess Martin.
Extra Ordinary is one of those films that could have been distractingly sardonic if it wasn't made with such genuine warmth. Sure, the humour is irreverent, but it's done in such a way as to endear the characters to the audience due to their imperfections rather than encourage us to laugh at their failings. For example, when Rose explains to Martin what she has to do to release Sarah, he responds, "oh, so like The Exorcist?", to which she says, completely seriously, "I don't know, I've never met him." It's a funny moment, but so too is it a rather sweet moment, and a lot of the humour is in this vein; on the edge of being sarcastic, but never cynical.
Another important aspect of the humour is that the jokes come thick and fast from the opening few seconds. Indeed, there's rarely a scene without some element of humour somewhere in it. This isn't the type of comedy where everything gets serious at certain points, or where the characters' experiences force them to make major changes to their lives because they have learned this lesson and that lesson. Instead, from the opening voiceover to literally the last words spoken, this is wall-to-wall humour. For example, take Martin's relationship with Sarah. He's introduced as being overly protective of her (his great fear is that she'll end up "a homeless sex maniac living on the streets and snorting hash"), whilst she views him as a bit of an embarrassment. However, their relationship never leads to the clichéd old scene where (insert emotion here) they learn to value one another's flaws. That's just not the film's modus operandi, and it's all the fresher because of it.
The film opens with a VHS recording of Vincent Dooley's TV show (featuring some of the most low-rent production values you'll ever see), with Dooley explaining that the reason cheese gives people bad dreams is because cheese is made of the same stuff as ghosts, and hence, they find it easy to inhabit. And this is the tone in which the entire film takes place; it never really departs from this register. Later on, a major plot point is Christian's "virgin rod", a magical staff which can point towards a suitable virgin for sacrifice . To avail of its services, he must hold it up, whisper an incantation, then drop it, and it will point towards a virgin. He must then walk a few feet in that direction, pick it up, and repeat. And yes, it's as ridiculous as it sounds, and the shot of him wandering across an empty field as he continually picks up and drops the stick is absolutely hilarious.
The film doesn't rely too heavily on sight-gags, but there's a moment towards the end that is side-splitting. As Sarah floats down the road towards the sacrificial altar, she's followed by Christian and Claudia in one car and Rose and Martin in another. Except the entire chase is taking place at around 10mph. It's one of the film's most slapstick moments, but Claudia's solution to speed things up elevate it to a whole other level. And I won't spoil anything, but the "ginger werewolf scene" has to be seen to be believed; suffice to say, it's pure Father Ted (1995), with an elaborate build-up that makes the utter mundanity of the punchline exquisite.
However, the single most hilarious moment is when we see a brief clip of Christian's claim to fame, a song called "Cosmic Woman" that is so obviously a riff on Chris De Burgh's "A Spaceman Came Travelling By" (1976), I'm pretty sure he could sue for royalties. Everything about it, from the cheesy special effects to the instrumental refrain to the self-important lyrics, just screams out where it was taken from.
Elsewhere, there are plenty of smaller moments that stand out. For example, at the outset, a "based on a true story" subtitle appears. Perhaps getting a dig at the never-ending spate of horror films to make this claim, no sooner has the subtitle appeared when a garbage truck drives across the frame, erasing the words behind it. Along the same lines is cinematographer James Mather's tendency to use overly dramatic crash pans, especially in car scenes, with the incongruity between the hyperkinetic form and the utterly mundane content never failing to make me chuckle. Speaking of overly-dramatic shots, in one particular scene Mather even uses that most dramatic of shots - the split diopter. Except he does so in the most mundane setting you could possibly imagine (in a scene in which a person holds a mop in front of their face as a disguise). There's also Christian's hilarious driving lesson, which sees him spend more time putting on a pair of driving gloves than actually driving. And then, managing to go all of four feet (giving himself a bloody nose in the process), he decides he's had enough for the day. Also consistently funny is Claudia's inability to understand why the virgin must be sacrificed on a particular night, with her refrain of "just kill the b***h" one of the film's best running gags.
Extra Ordinary is a distinctly Irish film, but it's one whose self-aware brand of Irishness should travel pretty well. Strong performances all-round, constant laughs, some terrific sight-gags, and a generally warm tone make for a fine film. For some, the highpoint will be Forte's ludicrously over-the-top Christian, for others, it will be the touching character beats between Rose and Martin. Irrespective of your preference, however, I would strongly recommend this truly charming film.
Andre the Giant (2018)
A fitting tribute to a man who was genuinely one of a kind
On March 29, 1987, the most significant pro-wrestling match of all time took place at WrestleMania III (1987) in the Pontiac Silverdome, in front of 93,173 fans and millions watching around the world, as Hulk Hogan (the greatest of all time then and the greatest of all time now) defended his world heavyweight title against his former best friend, André the Giant. The whole thing was a perfect storm of an expanding and rabid fan base, a company that had gone from territorial to national to international in just a few years, advertising acumen, talent with charisma to burn, and, most importantly, genuine emotion - Hogan had been betrayed by his oldest and closest friend, a man who had grown bitter and resentful of Hogan's success, and who now wanted Hogan's title from him, a title he had held since January 1984. It's not the greatest contest of all time; for a WrestleMania main event, it's very short (12 minutes), with Hogan extremely restricted as to what he could do with André, whose mobility was severely compromised and who was in immense pain due to the effects of acromegaly. But it didn't matter, because the match culminated with Hogan doing the impossible and slamming André. It's rare in pro-wrestling when a babyface champion goes into a match as the underdog, but that was exactly what had happened here, making Hogan's victory all the more significant.
Which brings us to Jason Hehir's excellent documentary on André for HBO, the emotional high-point of which is the WrestleMania III match with Hogan. Sure, it's not always successful in its attempts to separate the man from the myth, falling back far too often on the very hyperbolic mythological elements it's trying to sidestep, and it's neither as insightful nor as objective as one might wish - it was made in association with WWE, which makes objectivity pretty much impossible, and there's next to nothing here you couldn't find online. However, it's respectful, informed, and entertaining, avoiding, for the most part, hagiography, and featuring some superb archival footage, providing a not-always-uplifting window into the life of a man for whom the term "gentle giant" could very well have been coined.
Born André René Roussimoff in 1946 in Molien, France, André began to display signs of gigantism at around 10, and by age 12, he was already 6ft 3in and 208lbs. He started working as a pro-wrestler in 1964, and soon became a huge draw anywhere he went. Fast forward to WrestleMania III in 1987, André's gigantism had developed into acromegaly, as he continued to grow, putting huge pressure on his joints, which caused him constant pain. Semi-retired, he had trouble even walking. However, WWF owner Vince McMahon pitched a storyline which would see André turn heel for the first time in his career and challenge Hogan for the title. The resulting match was instantly iconic, not just in the pro-wrestling sphere, but in pop culture generally. That same year, André appeared in The Princess Bride (1987) as Fezzik, a gentle giant with a penchant for rhyming. Refusing all treatment for his acromegaly as he felt it would interfere with his career and diminish his persona, he continued to wrestle on and off for the next five years, as his health continued to decline. He died in his sleep of congestive heart failure on January 27, 1993.
The film is composed entirely of archival footage and talking-head interviews, with Hehir choosing not to employ a narrator, effectively allowing the interviewees to tell the story. During pre-production, Hehir and producer Bill Simmons decided to include only material which had been directly witnessed; there was to be nothing anecdotal. As Hehir explains it, "we were only going to have first-person accounts. So, if someone said, "I heard André drank 156 beers," well, were you there? If you weren't, it's not gonna make it in. But when Ric Flair says "he drank 106 beers in front of me", that makes it in." This affords the documentary a sense of personalised intimacy - every interviewee is talking about things they actually saw rather than things about which they heard - which, in turn, works towards Hehir's mission statement of depicting the man rather than the myth.
In this respect, one of the most important sections in the film is the disappointingly brief depiction of his time in his adopted home of Ellerbe, NC. Interviewing his daughter, who spent time with him on his ranch, and a few neighbours, this is where Hehir is most successful in dividing the man from the mythos. André loved living there because he could be himself and because he was left alone - he could go to the shop without people gawking at him or asking for autographs, he could be a regular citizen. This comes in the middle of a section about how logistically difficult André's life was (as Flair points out, he couldn't put on a disguise and stroll around New York or go to a movie, and as Hogan explains, everything was too small for him, rendering mundane tasks such as eating in a restaurant hugely difficult). The Ellerbe material really gives the impression that, outside his native France, this was where he was happiest. It's one of the most low-key, moving, and human parts of the documentary, and it's perhaps the only section from which hyperbole seems entirely absent.
Another rather moving section concerns the making of The Princess Bride. Anyone familiar with the film will already know everything covered in this section, but many wrestling fans will not. In a direct rejoinder to colleagues who humorously extol his legendary drinking, Cary Elwes points out that the reason André drank so much was that he was perpetually in so much pain. Along the same lines, director Rob Reiner and actress Robin Wright discuss how surprised they were at how difficult André found it to perform even the simplest physical tasks. There's the famous shot, for example, where Westley (Elwes) jumps on Fezzik's back, and Fezzik slams them both into a boulder, a scene which employs one of the most obvious stunt doubles ever seen, as André was unable to shoot the scene himself. Even more revealing is the scene where he catches Buttercup (Wright) as she falls from a tower, a scene which had to be shot with Wright supported on wires because André couldn't hold her weight. This man who routinely tossed 300lb opponents around the ring couldn't support the weight of a single woman.
In this sense, although the tone is never melancholy, André's story does emerge as something of a tragedy - not because he failed to achieve his dreams, but because in doing so, he dissuaded himself from availing of the aid that could have lengthened his life, and would certainly have eased his suffering.
In terms of problems, the most egregious is Hehir's failure (for the most part) to disentangle André Roussimoff from André the Giant. Hogan, Flair, McMahon, and André's closest friend, Tim White all talk about the man behind the persona, but none can claim to have known him before he became André the Giant. This is why the Ellerbe section and the brief material on his life in France are so important, as they speak to who he actually was rather than who we believe him to be. So although Hehir does avoid hagiography, he fails to demythologise, with so many of the (probably hyperbolic) stories told by the interviewees fitting more comfortably into the image of André the Giant than the life of André Roussimoff. Additionally, more than likely due to the WWE's direct involvement with the project, there's nothing even remotely negative said about the company, although Hogan does point out that, come WrestleMania III, André probably shouldn't have been in the ring. The implication is that McMahon may have exploited André's passion for the business, but this fascinating theme is buried under more mythologising and is quickly forgotten. There's certainly a documentary to be made about André's later years, about his inability to leave the spotlight, about his lack of interest in self-preservation, but this is not that documentary.
Nevertheless, this is a very fine tribute. André was vitally important to an industry at a pivotal crossroads, and the film captures why he was such a compelling character, able to elicit pathos (and later antagonism) from wrestling audiences the world over with relative ease.
The poem is a masterpiece of esoteric science-fiction literature; and this is an unexpectedly impressive adaptation with a chilling dénouement
The transitory nature of human existence, especially when set against the infinity of space and time, has been the inspiration for countless science-fiction narratives. A theme which has only become more relevant as the years go by and we find ourselves in the midst of an increasingly certain man-made extinction event, a fine example is Harry Martinson's poem, Aniara: en revy om människan i tid och rum [trans. Aniara: fragments of time and space] (1956), which is about the crippling contemplation of meaninglessness that consumes the passengers of a vast spaceship (the eponymous Aniara) set adrift in the void of space. An adaptation of the poem, this exceptionally well made film is the debut feature from writers/directors Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja, and is in the tradition of such esoteric texts as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Solyaris (1972), Sunshine (2007), and High Life (2018). And yes, the characters are a little underdeveloped, with only a couple getting much of an arc, and yes, the science isn't exactly kosher, but irrespective of that, this is a provocative, morally complex, and existentially challenging film that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Set at an unspecified point in the future, Earth has reached a point of irreversible decay, and humanity is making a new home on Mars. The Aniara is a massive vessel that takes passengers on the three-week trip from a lunar docking station to the red planet. As the film begins, we meet the unnamed protagonist (Emelie Jonsson). An employee on the Aniara, she is in charge of MIMA, (hence her job as a Mimarobe, or MR for short), a semi-sentient holodeck-like technology, that can scan people's thoughts, and allow them to experience whatever is best suited for their psyche (for example, we see MR exploring a vibrant forest). A week into the voyage, however, Captain Chefone (Arvin Kananian) is forced to jettison the vessel's nuclear core to avoid catastrophy after a minor collision with space debris. However, the ship is now off-course, and without the core, the crew have no way of turning her around, leaving them drifting into the darkness of space. And so, as months turn into years, with no hope of rescue, and as people find themselves unable to face reality, MIMA becomes essential for their mental well-being. However, MIMA wasn't designed to be exposed to so many negative emotions for such a prolonged time, and soon she starts to show signs of failing.
As mentioned, Aniara was written in 1956 by Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinson (the title is derived from the Ancient Greek word meaning "despairing"). The poem is more allegorical than the film, and was written, at least in part, as a reaction to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the developing Cold War, Walter Baade's doubling of the estimated distance from the Milky Way to Andromeda in 1953, and Soviet suppression of the 1956 Hungarian revolution. The film is divided into nine chapters, which mark the passage of time. So, for example, the first three chapters are "Hour 1: Routine Voyage", "Week 3: Without a Map" and "Year 3: The Yurg". The titles of some of the later chapters contain pseudo-spoilers, so I won't mention them here, but when the title of the last chapter appeared on screen, I was so sure I'd misread it that I had to ask my friend for confirmation. Turned out I'd read it just fine; this last title contains all the existential dread and mind-bending contemplation of infinity that you could ever want. And it's an absolutely haunting way to end the film.
Much as is the case with the poem, the film looks at issues such as the possibility that we have already irreparably damaged the planet, the impermanence of human existence, and the sense of meaninglessness that can result when mankind is faced with the eternity of time and space. In relation to this, the film spends a good deal of time on the idea that human civilisation is essentially a construct that we use to shield us from the bleak reality that we are utterly insignificant, and when that construct is removed, we revert to barbarism. So, basically your typical multiplex stuff. The passengers on the Aniara become increasingly unable to stave off the encroaching malaise born from the hopelessness of their situation and the meaninglessness of their existence, and one of the most important lines in the film is when MR is told "everything we do is peripheral". Uplifting stuff.
One of the film's most interesting themes concerns MIMA, which is depicted as half-mind control, half-narcotic. As she becomes more important post-collision, it doesn't take long for people to become dependent on her, with large queues forming, and people at the back trying to bribe MR to get in early. Then, when MR hires another employee, she explains that she'll need to "teach them to resist the images", recalling the way people who work in pharmaceutical factories are randomly drug-tested. That's the narcotic element. At the same time, when a passenger proves unable to handle reality and becomes violent, he is forced to experience MIMA against his will and is rendered unconscious. That's the mind-control element. However, MIMA is also semi-sentient, and she soon proves reluctant to continue processing the never-ending onrush of negative emotions, with the passengers' sense of pointlessness and despair becoming overwhelming, to the point that she tells MR, in a surprisingly moving scene, "I want peace". HAL 9000 she is not; he'd have been able to suck it up.
Another theme, of course, is mankind's destruction of Earth. Whereas once, science fiction narratives focused on nuclear warfare as humanity's probable extinction event, in recent times, global warming and ecological disaster have become far more pervasive. Indeed, Martinson himself was something of a pioneer in this field, positing that we were destroying the planet long before climate change had entered the zeitgeist. In relation to this, the possibility that we may colonise other worlds is now seen not as something to facilitate exploration, but to facilitate survival. Of course, this is rendered all the more terrifying because it's not something only found in the realm of fiction - the planet is dying. But when you have a US president who ignores the scientific evidence of his own people, routinely rolls back environmental protections, and continually confuses weather and climate, the possibility of our changing course seems remote, just like the Aniara. This theme is never examined explicitly - we never learn the year in which the film is set, whether or not Earth has already died and is entirely uninhabitable or is simply on the way, nor what exactly it was that sent us into the cosmos - but it's touched on obliquely throughout and is a good example of how the film subtly engages with themes without necessarily foregrounding them.
Moving away from thematic concerns, the film's aesthetic is absolutely gorgeous. Made with a relatively small budget, the CGI is basic but highly effective. For the Aniara interiors, rather than building elaborate original sets, much of the film was shot in shopping malls and on ferries, which makes sense, as the Aniara is essentially a giant shopping mall/hotel, not unlike a luxury cruise ship. For the sets that were built from scratch, they are matched seamlessly to the location work, with the sleek minimalist post-modern (one might even say Ikea-like) style of Linnéa Pettersson and Maja-Stina Åsberg's production design working well to suggest rigid functionality.
In terms of problems, perhaps the most significant is the lack of character arcs (although this is also true of the poem). This is felt most in the lack of disparate viewpoints on the Aniara where it would have been interesting to meet characters with distinct beliefs, backgrounds, and denominations (although, having said that, the poem has no such characters). Does this leave the viewer with little with which to engage and no characters with whom to empathise? Yes, to a certain extent it does, but this is by design; the film isn't asking us to fall in love with a cast of well-rounded characters, it's asking us to engage with it at an esoteric level.
I will concede, however, that the science has some issues. Why, for example, would a ship the size of the Aniara be used as a short-distance transport vessel? It's mentioned several times that she wasn't built for long-term habitation, but if so, why are there so many amenities on board, why is the life-support system self-regulating, why are the algae farms designed to produce food indefinitely? And the practical nature of her size (4,750 meters long and 891 meters wide) throws up its own problems. Mars is (on average) 140 million miles from Earth, so for the Aniara to complete the journey in three weeks, she would need to travel at an average velocity of 277,777 miles per hour. Newton's second law of motion states that "force equals mass times acceleration"; in short, the greater the mass and the greater the speed, the more force it takes to slow down, and the power needed to slow something this big moving at such a speed is virtually unfathomable.
Nevertheless, the surrounding film is so accomplished, I can easily forgive the scientific inconsistencies. As aesthetically impressive as it is morally complex, as esoterically fascinating as it is unrelentingly despairing, this is a hugely impressive debut film. Equal parts haunting and provocative, the picture it paints of a humanity faced with its own extinction isn't a pretty one, but it is an urgent one, as we hurtle towards our own extinction, rapidly approaching the point where, like the Aniara, we will no longer have the capacity to turn around. And when we reach that point, our collective future will consist of nothing but the indifferent darkness and deafening silence of the infinite.
The Looming Tower (2018)
Complex, intelligent, and sobering; superb television
Based on Lawrence Wright's 2006 book, The Looming Tower tells the story of how the 9/11 attacks were made possible by the internecine squabbling between the CIA and the FBI. However, whereas the majority of the book deals with al-Qaeda, the series focuses almost exclusively on the American perspective, which makes sense as it's an American show with American financing aimed at an American audience. Certainly, there are depictions of some of the terrorists; but this is an American story. And although the binary of CIA=bad/FBI=good is too neat, and there is a series dearth of information on al-Qaeda, this is sobering TV, which is at its best when it shows us how easily these events could have been prevented.
Although framed by the 9/11 Commission in 2004, the story begins in 1998. Both the CIA and FBI each have a dedicated "bin Laden unit". The CIA's Alec Station is run by Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard playing a thinly-fictionalised Michael Scheuer), whilst the FBI's I-49 is run by John O'Neill (Jeff Daniels). Each unit is required to share intelligence with the other, but, in reality, neither shares much of anything except insults. In between the two is Richard Clarke (Michael Stuhlbarg), National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection and Counter-terrorism. As the show begins, Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim), a Muslim Lebanese-American, has just been assigned to I-49, and shortly thereafter, bin Laden (referred to primarily as UBL) is interviewed for ABC News, promising a grand statement unless the US pull out of the Middle East. But with the Monica Lewinsky scandal in full-swing, the country's attention is elsewhere.
The Looming Tower was developed for TV by Wright, Dan Futterman, and Alex Gibney. An element to which it returns time and again is how both the Clinton and Bush administrations underestimated UBL. This is initially touched on in the first episode, "Now it Begins... (2018)", after the ABC interview, with Soufan telling O'Neill, "he used the interview to appear strong by threatening the United States as he looked an American directly in the eye." With a semen-stained dress to worry about, however, no one pays much attention. Subsequently, in the fourth episode, "Mercury (2018)", Soufan explains, "al-Qaeda is not going to be defeated by simply gunning down the boss. To them, martyrdom is the purest kind of poetry. It's beyond poetry. It's eternity. Each time we snuff a part of it out, it'll keep resurfacing. It goes that deep. Killing Bin Laden is only going to secure his legend and inspire more and more martyrs." The theme of failing to understand the nature of the threat comes up again later in the same episode when Schmidt proposes bombing a bird hunt that might include bin Laden, and O'Neill counters, "within days, there will be a million more recruits ready to sign up. Do you even understand the concept of martyrdom? This isn't a war about one man. Bin Laden is an ideologue, not some plutocrat running a banana republic. His people actually believe. It's bin Laden-ism we're up against, not just bin Laden."
This tendency to underestimate UBL becomes even more pronounced under the Bush presidency, leading to some of the show's best scenes. In the eighth episode, "A Very Special Relationship (2018)", shortly after her appointment as Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice (Eisa Davis) interrupts Clarke as he is giving a presentation on al-Qaeda, telling him, "when you put something in writing, if you want it to get to the President, keep it pithy." A later scene in the same episode has a similar tone as Rice meets with Clarke, CIA Director George Tenet (Alec Baldwin), Schmidt's right-hand woman Diane Marsh (Wrenn Schmidt), and O'Neill, at which O'Neill is stunned when Rice asks him who he is. It's an extraordinarily well-written scene, and the only time we see O'Neill lost for words, with Daniels nailing his utter incredulity at her not knowing his name.
Another major theme is faith. However, the show is less interested in the blind devotion of UBL's followers than in the lapsed faith of O'Neill and Soufan. O'Neill's loss of faith deeply troubles Liz (Annie Parisse), one of his two mistresses, who's a practising Catholic, and who believes him (incorrectly) to be divorced. This is rendered even more complicated when he's told that to marry Liz in the church, he must first nullify his marriage to Maria (Tasha Lawrence), who's an even more stringent Catholic than Liz, and doesn't believe in divorce. In "Mercury", he asks a cardinal, "you sure there's not some little crack in the magisterium that would allow Maria to maintain her good standing?" However, he's told, "well if you were to die".
In regards Soufan's faith, although he's initially introduced as no longer practising Islam, the faith-based nature of al-Qaeda's ideology deeply troubles him ("when people use my religion to justify this s**t, it affects me"). Indeed, one of the most welcome elements of the show is that although there isn't a huge amount of time spent depicting the Muslim community, there are a few scenes that give a positive presentation, such as a social gathering in "Mercury" where Islam is barely even mentioned. Even some of the terrorists are given interesting context, much of which challenges the notion that all Muslims subscribe to Islamic fundamentalism; for example, Hoda al-Hada (July Namir), who is married to one of the hijackers, doesn't subscribe in any way to her husband's belief in UBL. Instead, she's more concerned with her young children knowing their father than the otherworldly blessings of Allah.
When it comes to the acting, the show excels, with Bill Camp (playing Robert Chesney, one of O'Neill's most reliable agents) and Michael Stuhlbarg as the standouts. Camp is given an amazing scene in "Mistakes Were Made (2018)" when he interrogates Mohamed al-Owhali (Youssef Berouain) in the wake of the bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi. An eight-minute scene of two men just sitting in a room, Camp is quiet and calm, fondly remembering his military service, drawing al-Owhali in, gaining his trust, making him comfortable, before exploding at the right moment. It's an extraordinarily well-acted, well-directed, and well-edited scene, and a masterclass in dramatic pacing. Although Stuhlbarg plays Clarke as perennially frustrated, he never lets his quiet politeness slip, although on several occasions, he hovers tantalisingly close. He's especially good in a scene late in "9/11 (2018)", after the attacks have happened, and Rice tells him, "Rumsfeld wants the attacks linked to Saddam Hussein and Iraq." This, of course, is an allusion to the illegal war pursued by the Bush administration after 9/11, itself a narrative of American incompetence, ineptitude, and arrogance, and Clarke's simple "what did you say", his voice subtly modulating, is as important a moment as the series has.
Elsewhere, Daniels plays O'Neill as boisterous and foul-mouthed, who doesn't care about the feathers he has to ruffle to get what he wants. Sarsgaard, on the other hand, plays Schmidt as the pretentious polar opposite; calm, patient, and insidious. Whereas O'Neill is all passion and rage, Schmidt is cold and emotionless.
Of course, the show does have problems. For one, there's almost nothing on why al-Qaeda hated the US so much (one of Wright's main themes), and literally nothing on the group's background. This kind of context is hugely important to any depiction of al-Qaeda, so for the series to offer us nothing on their origins is disappointing.
Elsewhere, a subplot in the first episode sees Chesney strike up a romantic relationship with Deb Fletcher (Sharon Washington), chief of station for the US embassy in Nairobi. The storyline is intended to give us an emotional connection to the bombing, but the plot is tonally divorced from everything surrounding it, coming across as emotionally inauthentic. Along the same lines, the show is at its weakest when depicting O'Neill's labyrinthine personal life, Soufan's relationship with his girlfriend Heather (Ella Rae Peck), and the tentative romance between Schmidt and Marsh. Much of this material feels rote and generic, romantic subplots forced into the story so as to counter the testosterone-soaked main narrative (although to be fair, Scheuer did marry Alfreda Bikowsky, on whom Marsh is partly based).
The most egregious problem, however, is the rigid binary distinction between the FBI and the CIA, wherein the FBI are the honourable team players whilst the CIA are the paranoid and duplicitous pseudo-villains, a distinction personified in O'Neill and Schmidt, and which never feels completely authentic. O'Neill was far from perfect, but Schmidt is a dishonest, permanently smirking jerk, convinced of his own genius. To be fair, there can be little argument that Scheuer is a toxic and thoroughly arrogant individual, but there's also some nuance that Schmidt doesn't possess.
Nevertheless, The Looming Tower is taut, complex, and politically fascinating. Sure, the story is streamlined and simplified, but even so, it hasn't been drained of moral complexity, as it serves as a reminder of something with great importance today - with UBL literally telling the US that he was going to attack, everyone was focused on how a cigar was used as a toy. And living, as we do, in an era where the American media is routinely distracted by irrelevancies, it seems the lessons of history have not been heeded.
The Mustang (2019)
From a narrative perspective, there's nothing you haven't seen done before, but it's very well-made and genuinely moving
The pitch for The Mustang is about as hackneyed as it gets - a dangerous convict who hits out at everything and everyone is given a shot at redemption by working with a dangerous horse who hits out at everything and everyone, and as the man starts to tame the animal, the animal starts to tame the man. So far, so Hallmark Channel movie of the week; a story so familiar, it seems impossible it could communicate anything of interest. Except, despite its derivative underpinnings, The Mustang has been made with such craft that it transcends the clichés and works exceptionally well on its own terms. Tonally similar to recent equine-related films such as Lean on Pete (2017) and The Rider (2017), whilst also covering some of the same narrative ground as Michael Mann and David Milch's criminally underappreciated TV show, Luck (2011), The Mustang touches on issues such as masculine guilt, penitentiary stoicism, and human-animal trust, but really, this is a character study. And yes, chances are everything you think might happen does happen, but the acting, the emotional beats, and the sense of authenticity all contribute to the whole, wherein it turns out the familiarity of the destination doesn't matter that much when the journey to get there is so well executed.
Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) is serving a 12-year bit in a Nevada jail and has just been released from solitary. He's so emotionally shut down that the prison's psychologist (Connie Britton) can barely get him to confirm his name, let alone open up about his feelings. Assigned to "outdoor maintenance", he is to clean up the horse dung from the mustangs used in the Wild Horse Inmate Program (WHIP), which sees a select few inmates "gentle" the animals - essentially, tame them so they can be sold at auction. Coleman keeps to himself, but is drawn to a barn in which a single horse repeatedly kicks the door. Seeing Coleman's interest, head trainer Myles (Bruce Dern doing his Bruce Dern thing) decides to give him a chance to work with the horse, although he warns him that it's considered unbreakable, and will likely be euthanized. Naming him Marquis (although he mispronounces it as Marcus), Coleman sets about attempting to connect with Marquis in a way in which he hasn't connected with anyone or anything in many years.
Executive produced by Robert Redford, The Mustang was initially developed through the Sundance Institute. Written by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, Mona Fastvold, and Brock Norman Brock and based on de Clermont-Tonnerre's short Rabbit (2014), The Mustang is her feature directorial debut. As the opening and closing legends tell us, WHIP is real, with prisons across 13 states adopting it, and research showing there is a significant dip in recidivist rates amongst inmates who have worked with the horses (the rehabilitative potential of WHIP was also an important plot point in Luck).
Despite the narrative outline suggesting otherwise, The Mustang is not a sentimental film. De Clermont-Tonnerre avoids, for example, romanticising the relationship between Coleman and Marquis; they don't have some kind of profound psychic bond, rather they connect emotionally, nothing more. Their relationship is not an opportunity for glib esotericism regarding the human condition, it's a simple friendship. Belying her directorial inexperience, de Clermont-Tonnerre shows a terrific instinct for how close or how removed we should be at any given moment; at times, she stands back and allows the characters room to breathe, whilst at others, she muscles into the action. This is important when we get to the third act, as she shows remarkable (almost documentarian) directorial restraint, shooting the film's last few scenes, where the potential for melodrama at its strongest, in such a way that such melodrama is never allowed to overwhelm the smaller more realistic character beats.
In terms of acting, this is Schoenaerts's film, with his performance recalling his work in De rouille et d'os (2012), Maryland (2015), and, most obviously, his portrayal of Jacky Vanmarsenille in Rundskop (2011). Coleman shares a lot of characteristics with Vanmarsenille, and Schoenaerts hits many of the same beats, particularly the barely controlled temper that could erupt at any moment. The performance is all the more impressive when you consider how little dialogue Schoenaerts has, instead conveying emotion via physicality. Pay attention, for example, to his gait, which subtly changes over the course of the film in tandem with his developing arc.
Perhaps the most obvious similarity between Coleman and Vanmarsenille, however, is their connection with animals. In Rundskop, Vanmarsenille is repeatedly compared to the bulls his family rear, whether through shot composition or editing. This comparative vein is even more pronounced in The Mustang. For example, the film opens on a tight close-up of a mustang's eye, and the first time we see Coleman, it's a BCU of him opening his eyes as horse hooves play on the soundtrack. Later, there's a shot in which Coleman is reflected in Marquis's eye and a scene where both he and Marquis are pinned to the ground, facing one another. When Coleman is confined to his cell, we see him pacing back and forth and punching the wall, recalling Marquis's behaviour in the stall. Sure, none of this is subtle, but it is effective, with de Clermont-Tonnerre showing a surprising ability to communicate emotions and themes via pure visuals.
Thematically, of course, the main theme is the similarity between man and beast - Coleman and Marquis are both wild and unruly, and both must be brought to a condition of amiability. Within this, the other big theme is the danger of losing self-control. A crucial scene in this respect, and one of the best in the film, is an anger management class with the psychologist, who asks each prisoner how long passed between the thought of their crime and its execution, and how long have they been in jail. None of the men say there was anything more than a few seconds between thought and deed. The point is clear; a split-second decision has landed then in prison for years. It could be a scene out of any number of prison documentaries (it would have fit right into The Work (2017), the superb documentary about the Inside Circle program in Folsom), and it's a good example of de Clermont-Tonnerre hanging back when she needs to.
Of course, the film is not perfect. For a start, for some people, the narrative beats, particularly the penitentiary redemption arc, will just be too familiar. The fact is that we've all seen pretty much everything of which The Mustang is composed, and for some, that aspect will simply be off-putting. De Clermont-Tonnerre does a fine job of sidestepping almost all of the clichés inherent in this kind of story, but the mere fact that there are so many clichés to avoid in the first place will discourage some people. A bigger issue is a subplot involving Dan (Josh Stewart), Coleman's cellmate, who blackmails him into smuggling ketamine into the prison. This subplot feels like it's been imported from another film entirely, but in incomplete form - it's introduced late in proceedings, is only half-heartedly explored, and ends without much in the way of resolution. These scene are the weakest and the most inauthentic in the film. The narrative needs Coleman to be at a certain place at a certain time, and de Clermont-Tonnerre uses this storyline to facilitate that. But there were far more organic ways to have accomplished this without resorting to a subplot that is so tonally divorced from everything around it.
These few issues notwithstanding, I thoroughly enjoyed The Mustang. On paper, this is a clichéd social protest film with a classic redemption arc, but de Clermont-Tonnerre fashions it into something far more emotionally authentic. She embraces, for the most part, non-judgmental restraint, simplicity, and sincerity, and more than once communicates meaning via purely visual statements. She's working perilously close to cliché, but her intimate direction and Schoenaerts's committed performance allow the film to remain always genuine and respectful. Basing the drama around the real-world WHIP, de Clermont-Tonnerre suggests that, as in other restorative therapies, when you treat someone like a human being, oftentimes, you will find their humanity. And the irony, and the film's most fascinating and beautifully handled trope, is that Coleman's humanity could only be found, drawn out, and nurtured by an animal.
Never Grow Old (2019)
Ugly, bleak, gritty, and enjoyable
I guarantee you've seen this story before - a good man who either abhors or has renounced violence forced to take up arms so as to protect the innocent from a villain. You can find it deployed in westerns such as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Firecreek (1968), and in genre films as varied as Collateral (2004), Death Sentence (2007), and Rambo (2008). Filmed in Connemara (standing in for Oregon), this third feature from writer/director Ivan Kavanagh is the latest to roll out that narrative template. And really, there are next to no surprises in Never Grow Old - chances are everything you think is going to happen does happen. However, this isn't really a criticism. The film wears its predictability like a badge of honour, and Kavanagh is obviously a huge fan of violent revisionist westerns such as The Wild Bunch (1969) and Bone Tomahawk (2015). The script isn't going to be winning any awards for originality, but the film has been put together with undeniable craft. It's bleak, gritty, and despairing, and whilst it won't change your life, it is rather enjoyable.
Oregon, 1849; the town of Garlow is the last stop on the California Trail prior to reaching the Rocky Mountains. Although Sheriff Parker (Tim Ahern) is nominally in charge, Garlow is really governed by the local Methodist preacher, Pike (Danny Webb), who has forbidden alcohol, gambling, and prostitution. The town's mild-mannered undertaker, Irish immigrant Patrick Tate (Emile Hirsch with an Irish accent that wavers mid-sentence), isn't especially interested in Pike's hellfire sermons, but he converted from Catholicism because it was important to his wife, French immigrant Audrey (Déborah François). Living on the edge of town with their two children, they plan to leave Garlow at some point but are in no major rush to do so. That plan becomes complicated when three men - Christopher 'Dutch' Albert (John Cusack, having an absolute blast), Dumb Dumb (Sam Louwyck), who carries his severed tongue with him, and Sicily (Camille Pistone), an Italian immigrant who doesn't speak English - roll into town looking for Bill Crabtree (Paul Ronan), who left Garlow several months prior, although his wife (Anne Coesens) and daughter Emily (Manon Capelle) are still there. Stating that Crabtree stole from him and must be killed, Dutch browbeats Tate into bringing the trio to his home and having Audrey cook for them. Seeing Pike's decrees as an opportunity, Dutch procures a group of prostitutes and reopens the town's saloon, killing anyone who crosses him. With his undertaker business thriving because of the spike in violence, Tate stays out of the situation as best he can, although Audrey is disgusted that he's prospering because of Dutch's actions. Soon, however, Tate's family will come under threat and he'll be forced to decide what he must do.
Thematically, the idea of paradise awaiting us in the next life, specifically the notion that the afterlife will be a lot better than our earthly existence, is alluded to throughout the film, mainly by Pike, but also by Audrey, and even Tate and Dutch on occasion (although Dutch references it ironically). And it's really not too hard to imagine a better life than the one Kavanagh presents in Garlow, which is literally a one-road town. However, this isn't the parched, dusty environment of beige, yellow, and light browns that we're all used to seeing in westerns. Rather, it's bleak and forlorn; the buildings are dark brown, almost black, the clouds hardly ever part, it rains a lot, and the road itself is nothing but mud, with Aza Hand's sound design emphasising the squelching of the characters' steps. To compound this sense of squalor, most of the film takes place at night, with cinematographer Piers McGrail occasionally using only one practical light to illuminate an entire scene. This necessitates that characters drift in and out of the shadows, which adds an extra element of danger to Dutch and his men. The life of a European in the Americas of the 19th century wasn't easy, and one of the film's most successful elements is in showing us some of why that was.
Never Grow Old has the structure of a morality tale or a Mystery play, looking at issues such as religious hypocrisy and self-righteousness and the harsh life of European colonisers in the Americas. It even takes time to briefly address the genocide of Native American people, with Pike sermonising about how the colonists saved the land from "savages". The most obvious theme, however, is greed. Tate, for example, is complicit with Dutch's violence insofar as he accepts and ignores it, even profiting indirectly because of it. Audrey is utterly disgusted with this, and she regards their newfound financial prosperity as nothing short of evil. Several of the town's more religious folk think the same thing, and there are multiple references to Tate getting his "30 pieces of silver". Indeed, a recurring motif in the film is to cut from Dutch killing someone to Tate cleaning the body to placing two coins on their eyes to closing the coffin to burying the coffin, and finally, to hiding his payment away in a tin buried in the house. When we first see the tin, there's little in it, but as the film goes on, it becomes fuller and fuller.
Indeed, the film has several visual moments like this which convey thematic points sans dialogue. The opening shot, for example, shows a tattered American flag hanging on a burnt building, immediately introducing the theme of violence and how life in the Americas was very different from that which was sold to so many before they arrived. In another early shot, we see Pike preaching to a packed church. Later, however, after Dutch has reopened the saloon, we again see Pike preaching, but this time to an almost empty church, which, of course, makes reference to the dwindling church attendance that we're seeing playing out today. Another nice visual touch, this time in John Leslie's production design is that the saloon is directly across the road from the church, symbolising the battle between these two forces (hedonism and piety) that continues to this day.
In terms of problems, the script isn't exactly original, with every character an archetype we've seen in many other films. Additionally, the slow-burn pace will put some people off. As mentioned, Emile Hirsch joins a venerable list of actors who have completely butchered the Irish accent; everyone from Tom Cruise to Tommy Lee Jones to Val Kilmer to Brad Pitt. Hirsch isn't as bad as any of these, but his tendency to drop in and out of the inflections on a word-by-word basis is distracting. Another slight issue is that towards the end of the film, Dutch starts reading from the Bible, quoting Revelation 19:17. It's more than a little on the nose, and really, a villain quoting Revelations is itself a cliché.
Overall, however, I enjoyed Never Grow Old far more than I expected. It's bleak and gritty, rough-edged and nihilistic, but it's very well made, with some nicely conceived visual shorthand. An uncompromising look at the harshness of frontier life in the 19th century, the film suggests that stoic individualism is no substitute for a vibrant community, and is as thematically dark as it is practically dark. A morality tale in all but name, there's nothing here you haven't seen before, but Kavanagh handles the genre elements well and has made a rather enjoyable film.
Built upon a fascinating temporal dissonance that works well, but the narrative is painfully dull and the characters taciturn
Transit is based on Anna Seghers's 1942 novel of the same name about a German concentration camp survivor seeking passage from Vichy Marseilles to North Africa, as the Nazis move ever closer to the city. However, rather than a 1:1 adaptation, the film is built upon a fascinating structural conceit - although it tells the same story as Segher's novel, it is set in the here and now. At least, some elements are set in the here and now. In fact, only part of the film's milieu is modern. So, although such things as cars, ships, weaponry, and police uniforms are all contemporary, there are no mobile phones, no computers, people still use typewriters and send letters, and the clothes worn by the characters are the same as would have been worn at the time. In essence, this means that the film is set neither entirely in 1942 nor entirely in 2019, but in a strange kind of temporal halfway-house, borrowing elements from each. There's a fairly obvious reason that writer/director Christian Petzold employs this strategy, and it has to be said, it works exceptionally well, with the film's thematic focus symbiotically intertwined with its aesthetic to a highly unusual degree. Petzold doesn't so much suggest that history is repeating itself, as postulate that there's no difference between then and now. Unfortunately, aside from this daring aesthetic gambit, not much else worked for me, with the plot somnolent and the characters void of any relatable emotion.
The film tells the story of Georg (Franz Rogowski) a young man on the run from the "fascists". In Paris, he's entrusted with delivering some papers to George Weidel, a communist author currently in the city. However, when Georg goes to Weidel's hotel room, he finds the writer has committed suicide. Taking an unpublished manuscript, two letters from Weidel to his wife Marie, and Weidel's transit visa for passage to Mexico, Georg stows away on a train heading for Marseilles, one of the few European ports not yet under fascist control. Upon arriving, Georg visits the wife of a friend who died, Melissa (Maryam Zaree), to give her the bad news. However, she's deaf, and he has to explain the death through her young son, Driss (Lilien Batman), with whom he quickly forms a bond. Meanwhile, when he goes to the Mexican consulate to return Weidel's belongings, he is mistaken for Weidel himself, and he realises he has a chance to escape Europe, with Weidel booked on a ship sailing in a few days. As Georg awaits passage, he has several encounters with a mysterious woman, who, it is soon revealed is none other than Marie Weidel (Paula Beer), who is waiting for word from her husband. Not telling her that Weidel is dead, Georg finds himself falling for her.
Shot on location in Paris and Marseilles, everything from street signs to cars (including a few electric ones) to the front of buildings is modern, whilst Hans Fromm's crisp digital photography hasn't been aged in any way whatsoever. In terms of cultural signifiers, Petzold keeps it vague, although there is a reference to Dawn of the Dead (1978), with the closing credits featuring "Road to Nowhere" (1982). However, for everything that seems to locate the film in the 21st century, there's something to locate it in the 1940s, whether it be the absence of mobile phones, computers, and the internet, or the ubiquity of typewriters and letters. Along the same lines, Petzold keeps the politics generalised, with no mention of Nazis, concentration camps, or the Holocaust. Instead, the film makes reference to archetypal "fascists", never-defined "camps", and systemic "cleansing".
The combination of liminal elements of modernity and period-specific history sets up a temporal/cognitive dissonance which forces the audience to move beyond the abstract notion that what once happened could happen again. Instead, we are made to recognise that the difference between past and present is a semantic distinction only, and that that which once happened never really stopped happening. Indeed, given the resurgence of Neo-Fascism across Europe, built primarily on irrational xenophobic fears of the Other in the form of immigration, the refugee crisis is as bad today as it ever was in the 40s. The temporal dislocation also suggests both the specificity and the universality of the refugee experience - every refugee is fundamentally unique, but so too is the experience the same.
The other important aesthetic choice is the use of a very unusual voiceover narration. Introduced out of the blue as Georg begins reading Weidel's manuscript at around the 20-minute mark, there's no initial indication as to the narrator's identity or when the narration is taking place. Additionally, the narrator is unreliable, as on occasion he describes something differently to how we see it. The narration also "interacts" with the dialogue at one point - in a scene between Georg and Marie, their dialogue alternates with the VO; they get one part of a sentence and the VO completes it, or vice versa.
However, although I really liked the temporal dissonance, the experimental VO didn't work nearly as well, serving primarily to pull you out of the film as you try to answer a myriad of questions - where and when is the voice is coming from; what is its relationship to the narrative; are we hearing a character speak or someone outside the fabula; how can the narrator have access to Georg's innermost thoughts at some points but not at others; why is the voice able to accurately describe things not seen by Georg, but often inaccurately describe things which are; why does the narration seem to be ahead of the narrative at some points, and behind it at others; what is the purpose of the pseudo-break of the fourth wall by having the VO alternate with dialogue? I don't have answers to all of these questions, but I think the point of the destabilising/defamiliarising narration is to reinforce the experience of being a refugee, which is a mass of stories within stories and fragments that often contradict one another.
The film has more problems than just the VO, however. To suggest the disenfranchised nature of what it is to be a refugee, Petzold depicts Georg as a non-person; he has very little agency and is instead someone to whom things happen. In short, he's passive, less a protagonist than a witness. Passive characters can work extremely well in the right circumstances (think of Chance Gardner (Peter Sellers) in Being There (1979), or the most famous example, Hamlet), but here, passivity combines with a dearth of backstory and character development, whilst Rogowski plays the part without a hint of interiority. Easily the most successful scenes in the film are those showing his friendship with Driss because they're the only moments where he seems like a person rather than a narrative construct, they're the only parts of the film that ring emotionally true.
This friendship, however, is secondary to the love story between Georg and Marie. Except that it isn't a love story; there's no emotional realism to it whatsoever. I understand what Petzold is going for here. He doesn't want a Hollywood love story of fireworks and poetic monologues, he wants to show that the war and their status as refugees has stripped them of their identities, and they are now effectively shells. However, this in no way necessitates such a badly written relationship void of emotional truth.
What Petzold is trying to do in his characterisation of Georg is clear enough; as an archetypal refugee, Georg can't be seen to have much control over his affairs, and his time in Marseille must be static, an existence in-between more fully realised states. Petzold uses this to try to imply that to be divested of one's country is to be divested of one's identity. However, the extent of his passivity renders him completely unrealistic - he's not a person, he's a robot.
Tied to this is a lack of forward narrative momentum. Again, I understand that Petzold is trying to stay true to the experience, that the life of a refugee must necessarily involve a lot of waiting, repetition, and frustration. But again, it's the extent to which the film goes to suggest this. Yes, inertia is part of the theme insofar as the film depicts people suffering from crippling inertia, but it doesn't necessarily follow that the film needs to be so unrelentingly dull.
Easily the most egregious problem is one that arises from a combination of these issues - it's impossible to care about any of the characters. Think of films as varied as Das Boot ist voll (1981), Le Havre (2011), or Toivon tuolla puolen (2017). All depict refugees, and all ring true emotionally, because they're populated by characters about whom we come to care. This is precisely what Transit is lacking. There is no pathos, with none of the characters coming across as anything but a cipher, a representative archetype onto which Petzold can project his thematic concerns. With little in the way of psychological verisimilitude or interiority, they simply never come alive as real people.
An intellectual film rather than an emotional one, Transit is cold and distant. And this coldness and distance has a cumulative effect, with the film eventually outlasting my patience. The temporal dissonance works extremely well, but it's really all the film has going for it. Petzold says some interesting things regarding the experience of refugees in the 21st century vis-à-vis refugees of World War II, and the mirror he holds up to our society isn't especially flattering. If only we could care about someone on screen. Anyone.
Palpably tense and thematically complex, this is deeply uncomfortable viewing
A film I've always admired is David Cronenberg's A History of Violence (2005), which features two graphic sex scenes between Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Edie (Maria Bello). The first is a beautifully shot scene of two people madly in love; it's tender, gentle, playful, and erotic. The second takes place after their comfortable life has imploded because of his past deeds, and it's brutally rough, void of affection; just two people having sex on a staircase with no carpet. In these two scenes, the themes of the entire film are spelt out perfectly, encapsulating how catastrophically wrong things have gone and the degree to which their love has been compromised. So if ever there was a film with thematically justified sex scenes, it was here. In the same sense, explicit but crucial rape scenes can be found in films such as Irréversible (2002), Lilja 4-ever (2002), and Import Export (2007). And now so too Holiday. Director Isabella Eklöf's debut film, Holiday features an explicit rape that pushes all kinds of boundaries, and that will prove too much for some. No doubt it will be labelled gratuitous, exploitive, and voyeuristic, (accompanied by the usual asinine claims of "worst film ever"), when in actual fact it's the opposite - a narratively pivotal and thematically essential provocation.
Telling the familiar story of a sybaritic gangster's moll who realises she's in a bad situation, Holiday delights in upending generic norms. In this sense, it's thematically similar, although tonally different, to Coralie Fargeat's mesmerising rape/revenge thriller, Revenge (2017), which tackles all manner of androcentric tropes, subverting some, inverting others. Eklöf has cited both Gaspar Noé and Ulrich Seidl as influences, and as in much of their work, it's difficult to tell whether she's trying to convey a point about an inherently aggressive, territorial, and amoral human condition, or if she is just daring the audience to be offended. Co-written by Eklöf and Johanne Algren, the film is cold and hard, clinically detached from its subjects. But is it a post-MeToo narrative or an exploitative recreation of the male gaze and a validation of the worst elements of toxic masculinity (and toxic femininity)? And, yes, there are some problems - it eschews narrative momentum and conventional character arcs, and has no interest in eliciting pathos - but this is an impressive debut feature. The rape scene will limit its exposure beyond the festival circuit, we will definitely be hearing more from Eklöf in the future.
The film tells the story of Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne), a young woman holidaying with her older boyfriend, successful drug trafficker Michael (Lai Yde), and a group of his employees at a villa in Bodrum. Shortly after arriving, she meets Thomas (Thijs Römer), a Dutch tourist who is clearly smitten with her, and soon they're hanging out together. However, Sascha never mentions that she has a boyfriend, nor that he is violent when people don't do as he says.
As mentioned, Holiday reminded me of Revenge. Both are the first feature of a young female filmmaker, both play with genderised tropes, both turn androcentric paradigms on their head, both feature graphic violence, both are set in an almost exclusively male milieu where aggression is central, and both are highly confrontational (in Revenge, Fargeat makes the audience complicit with the male gaze by visually commodifying the body of the only women in the film, whilst in Holiday, Eklöf forces the audience into the position of a passive witness to a horrific rape). Thematically, the films are also connected, albeit by way of inversion - Revenge is about a woman fighting back against the men who have exploited and abused her; Holiday is about a woman who is either unable or unwilling to engage in such a fight.
In terms of the rape scene, filmed in a single shot at a removed distance using a stationary camera, is Eklöf saying something about male-on-female violence and sexual violation, or is the scene fetishising the very things she seems to be condemning - treating Sascha's body in much the same objectifying manner as Michael does. Is the scene redolent of a wider commentary on the behaviour it depicts, or is it simply cold observation of man's cruelty unto (wo)man? Either way, it's pivotal to the film, with Eklöf presenting Sascha as someone who internalises the violence done to her. Two key scenes in this respect come immediately before and immediately after the rape. When one of Michael's employees, Musse (Adam Ild Rohweder), returns from a drug deal to tell Michael the buyer never turned up, Michael is furious, telling Musse the police could have been watching and followed him back to the villa. He and his other employees then beat Musse for his stupidity. The rape happens next, and in the following scene, we see Musse, desperate to work his way back into the group's good graces, handing out expensive gifts. The point is clear; just as Musse becomes more loyal after a violent reprimand, so too does Sascha slide more and more into her role as sexual plaything for Michael.
The rape scene is also important insofar as it's an excellent example of showing rather than telling. At one point during the scene, which takes place in the villa's living room in broad daylight, someone appears at the top of the frame, coming down the stairs, although we only see their legs as they stop and retreat. This character, whoever it is, is thus doing something that Eklöf refuses to allow the audience to do - close our eyes to the horror of what we're witnessing, pretend it isn't happening. This speaks to a societal instinct to evade that which causes repulsion, with Eklöf suggesting that closing one's eyes to suffering and violence doesn't mean that suffering and violence go away. This is why the scene can't be dismissed as exploitative or gratuitous, a hollow attempt to shock.
Of course, although Sascha is blameless when it comes to the rape, in other ways, she's complicit with her own exploitation. Crucially, she's more concerned with accruing materialistic trappings than with the humiliations she must endure in order to accrue them. This is not a story about a woman too beaten down to try to leave, it's a story about a woman who knows that if she leaves, she will lose her meal ticket. In this sense, the film is partly a critique of consumerism and materialism. Important here is that Michael's group represent the worst kind of vacuous sybaritism - lowlife classless scumbags with no interest in anything other than their own wealth.
Aesthetically, the film is extremely controlled. Perhaps too controlled. For around an hour, next-to-nothing of consequence happens. There is method in Eklöf's restraint, however, with the narrative somnolence in the first half meaning that when it comes, the rape hits with even more force. Undoubtedly, the lack of incident will drive some people around the bend, but for me, everything is so tense, it doesn't matter that little of note happens.
The tendency to defamiliarise the mundane and render it unsettling is introduced in the opening shot, which sees Sascha walking through a seemingly empty airport, the sound of her high-heels reverberating throughout the building. There's nothing remotely threatening about the scene, but it's just off-kilter enough to instil trepidation, and this tone is maintained throughout. A karaoke session, in particular, is almost unbearably taut as we wait for an explosion of violence that may or may not come. Here, and elsewhere, Eklöf plays with and manipulates audience expectation, especially genre conditioning; we're used to seeing things kick off in films about drug dealers, so we expect the same from Holiday.
In terms of problems, the lack of forward momentum will lead some to find the film boring or "pointless", whilst the lack of character arcs will see others accuse it of being underwritten. Some people will also see the rape scene as unnecessarily degrading. And although all of these issues are by design, it has to be said that Eklöf does push non-incident slightly past breaking point, and her refusal to develop the characters does make it difficult to empathise with anyone. This is especially troublesome with Sascha herself, as she is, for all intents and purposes, hollow.
These problems notwithstanding, Holiday is an impressive first feature. Essentially about a woman who can adapt to anything so long as she has a credit card, it's bleak and difficult to watch, but it's also masterfully constructed and thematically complex. Presenting the group's milieu with the detachment of a nature documentary, we witness the physical violence and psychological brutality that's endemic to this world. Pushing the boundaries of how a woman's body can be used on-screen, Eklöf asks all manner of questions without providing much in the way of answers. Finding them is our job.
The Current War (2017)
Well acted and reasonably engaging, although there's a significant disconnect between form and content
Filmed between December 2016 and March 2017, when The Current War debuted in a near-completed form at TIFF in September 2017, it was considered a major contender for the 2018 Academy Awards. Scheduled for a prime awards-season release on December 22, and with a number of heavyweight producers (Timur Bekmambetov, Basil Iwanyk, Harvey Weinstein) and executive producers (Martin Scorsese, Bob Weinstein, Steven Zaillian), the film was to be distributed by The Weinstein Company, with Harvey in particular known for his ruthlessly efficient Oscar campaigns. He was overseeing the assemblage of the final cut in October when he was accused of sexual assault and rape by numerous women, and when he abandoned the project, the November release was shelved. Little more was heard of the film until October 2018, when Lantern Entertainment (which had acquired The Weinstein Company's assets) and 13 Films brokered a deal to co-distribute the film internationally in July 2019. Then, in April of this year, 101 Studios announced they would handle a limited release in North America in October, whilst director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon revealed he had re-edited the film, adding five additional scenes but trimming the overall run time by 10 minutes.
So is it worth the wait? Well, it's competently acted, reasonably entertaining, and moderately informative, but...it definitely won't be involved in the 2020 Oscars. It's certainly not as bad as a lot of critics (most of them reviewing the TIFF cut) have made out, but there's no denying that Gomez-Rejon over-directs the whole thing. If you listen to Paul Haggis's commentary track on Crash (2004) he tells a story about a scene which was filmed to begin with an elaborate camera move via a crane transitioning into a dolly shot. In the final film, however, all of that is gone, and Haggis explains that he realised during the edit that the camera moves were unjustified, doing little but drawing attention to themselves. A lot of The Current War's aesthetic draws attention to itself, primarily because Gomez-Rejon's elaborate direction is so out of sync with Michael Mitnick's by-the-numbers script - like a screenplay intended for Michael Bay ended up being directed by Michael Mann. Although make no mistake, Gomez-Rejon is no Mann.
Telling the story of the "war of the currents", the film opens in New Jersey in 1880 as the pioneer of the long-lasting electric light bulb, Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch proving once again that he can't do an American accent), stages a typically grandiose demonstration of the power of large-scale low-voltage direct current (DC). Meanwhile, George Westinghouse (an characteristically non-psychotic Michael Shannon, the inventor of the railway air brake, begins to consider that the way of the future is in electricity. However, he sees flaws in DC, and so favours high-voltage alternating current (AC), using transformers to step down the voltage. Edison's is the safer of the two systems, but so too is it more expensive, with a limited range compared to AC. The rest of the film takes place over the next 13 years as the two men come into direct conflict in the "race to light America", culminating in 1893 as each attempt to secure the contract for the Chicago World's Fair.
Edison and Westinghouse are opposite examples of the nature of success in an American free-market prospering during a period of immense technological innovation. Edison is aware of and addicted to his celebrity, a visionary enamoured of his own genius, convinced that he and he alone has the mental capacity to achieve success. He's also portrayed as a poor husband and father, and a lousy boss. On the other hand, the more stable, less flamboyant Westinghouse is devoted to his wife, values his collaborators, has no interest in fame, and doesn't even see Edison as competition, believing they should be working together.
The most immediately notable aspect of The Current War, however, is its aesthetic, specifically Gomez-Rejon's direction. Watching the film, I was reminded of Adrian Martin's 1992 article, "Mise-en-scène is dead, or the expressive, the excessive, the technical and the stylish", in which he divides mise-en-scène into three broad categories: classical ("in which there is a definite stylistic restraint at work"), expressive ("general strategies of colour coding, camera viewpoint, sound design and so on enhance or reinforce the general "feel" or meaning of the subject matter"), and mannerist ("performs out of its own trajectories, no longer working unobtrusively at the behest of the fiction"). Whilst I would posit that The Current War lands somewhere between the expressive and mannerist styles, it definitely lies closer to mannerist, rather than the synergy between form and content found in the work of most expressive filmmakers (one of Martin's examples of which is the aforementioned Michael Mann).
Some of Gomez-Rejon's aesthetic choices are definitely justified, arising directly from the content and serving a clear thematic purpose, but a lot are in service of nothing but themselves. An early example of a justified decision is when the camera pans up from Edison's New Jersey demonstration and travels to Westinghouse's Pittsburgh home in what is made to appear a single shot, connecting the two men, not just in terms of geography, but also ideology. Another shot, shooting directly down on Edison's elaborate circular light demonstration, also works well, instantly showing us his ambition and theatricality, plus the effectiveness of the demonstration. Once we reach Pittsburgh, a lengthy single-take shot introduces us to Westinghouse as he weaves his way through a throng of guests at a ball, with virtually everyone trying to catch his attention. This establishes him as a man of influence and considerable reach, but one who abhors the spotlight. In a later scene, Gomez-Rejon shoots Edison and his family in a train carriage using a fisheye lens. With Edison on one seat and his wife and two children facing him, the wide lens distorts the space between them unnaturally, mirroring the important theme of Edison neglecting his family in pursuit of his goals.
On the other hand, some of his choices are extremely hard to rationalise. That this should be important is attested by Thomas Elsaesser and Warren Buckland in their 2002 book, Studying Contemporary American Film: A Guide to Movie Analysis. During their analysis of Martin's tryptic division, they say of the mannerist style, "style is autonomous, for it is not linked to function, but draws attention to itself. In other words, style is not motivated or justified by the subject matter, but is its own justification". This is as apt a description of large portions of The Current War as you're going to find. The plethora of Dutch angles, for example, are more often than not arbitrary. So too the use of split-screen (even splitting the screen into three at one point). Again though, the purpose of the technique is unclear (compare it with something like Requiem for a Dream (2000), where every use of split-screen is wholly justified). This ripped me out of the film, as I constantly found myself asking, "I wonder why he did that" rather than paying attention to the content.
The handling of the characters is also problematic. Cumberbatch plays Edison as virtually identical to his portrait of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game (2014); a brilliant, driven, uncompromising innovator who's as difficult to relate to in terms of humanity as he is easy to admire for mental acumen. Elsewhere, the film has a habit of downplaying the supporting characters. Neither Edison's wife Mary (Tuppence Middleton) nor Westinghouse's wife Marguerite (Katherine Waterston) are developed beyond "supportive wife", whilst Edison's assistant, Samuel Insull (Tom Holland) gets just one decent scene. The worst example of this is, however, is Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), who is very much an afterthought, so under-developed that one wonders if it would have been better to leave him out altogether. This tendency is also found in a postscript which credits Edison, and Edison alone, with the development of the Kinetoscope (one of the first motion picture cameras), without so much as a mention of Louis Le Prince or William Kennedy Dickson.
Nevertheless, as serious as these problems are, I rather enjoyed The Current War, although, granted, that may be because I've always been drawn more to expressive mise-en-scène. It was never going to be the kind of Oscar contender that was obviously intended, but the behind-the-scenes turmoil and the critical mauling are not necessarily indicative of an inherently bad film. Sure, the script is weak in places, and Gomez-Rejon employs every camera trick known to man, more often than not without knowing why. But for all that, it kept me interested, and although I'd never argue it's an especially well-realised historical drama, I did, for the most part, enjoy it.
Sharp Objects (2018)
Thematically interesting and brilliantly acted, but painfully slow and far too long
Although this eight-part HBO limited series has been advertised as a murder-mystery, it's really a character study, with the murder plot functioning primarily as an impetus to facilitate engagement with the characters surrounding it. Nothing wrong with that, of course; the first season of True Detective (2014) (still one of the finest seasons of TV ever made) worked as well as it did not because of the ostensible whodunnit, but because of the psychological deep-dive into its two central characters. Sharp Objects is similarly interested not in who's behind a pair of murders in a small Missouri town, but in how those murders affect a trio of women caught up in the investigation. Feminine in design rather than inherently feminist, the show is a portrait of tainted motherhood and corrupted sisterhood, and focuses on internecine inter-generational conflict, matrilineal dysfunction, and how difficult it can be to escape from past trauma. But whilst the acting is exceptional, and the show is well directed and edited, much like the first season of Big Little Lies (2017), it left me wholly unengaged, completely uninterested in any of the characters, and fighting interminable boredom for much of its eight hours (it's yet another example of one of the worst elements of Prestige TV; series which are far, far longer than they need to be).
Sharp Objects tells the story of Camille Preaker (an exceptional Amy Adams), a reporter for the St. Louis Chronicle, who is sent back to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri to report on the murder of two young girls. A barely-functioning alcoholic prone to carving words into her flesh, Camille is ill-prepared for the effect Wind Gap has on her psyche. Central amongst her demons is her mother, Adora (a spectacular Patricia Clarkson), who looks down on Camille with barely-concealed disappointment. Camille is especially haunted by the memory of her younger sister Marian, who died when they were still children, but in the years since Camille moved away, Adora re-married and had another child, Amma (Eliza Scanlen, in a breakout role), who fascinates Camille with her dual personality - dutiful daughter from another era who wears elaborate dresses and plays with a doll's house, and roller-blading lollypop sucking teenage temptress.
Based on the 2006 Gillian Flynn novel, Sharp Objects was written primarily by showrunner Marti Noxon and Flynn herself, with directorial duties handled by Jean-Marc Vallée, who also helmed the aforementioned first season of Big Little Lies. Vallée was also lead editor, and this is important insofar as the editing is the show's calling card, as he attempts to draw us into Camille's psyche via fleeting snippets of childhood memories. The editing rhythms will definitely throw some people off initially, with the frequent one second (or less) cutaways recalling Oliver Stone's "horizontal editing". However, a more apt comparison would be the free-associative editing style of films such as Hiroshima mon amour (1959), Zerkalo (1975), and probably the best evocation of memory ever put on screen, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988). Indeed, the technique is not entirely unlike Marcel Proust's use of "involuntary memory" in À la recherche du temps perdu - so, for example, adult Camille lies in bed and stares at a crack on the ceiling and when we cut back to the bed, she's a child looking at that same crack; adult Camille is shown opening a door, and we cut to child Camille entering a room; adult Camille hears a song and closes her eyes, and when she opens them, she's a child listening to the song on the radio.
This editing style inculcates us into Camille's fractured mind, whilst also hinting at the nature of her trauma, without ever being too explicitly revealing. As will be discussed in a moment, Vallée grossly overuses the technique, neutering it of its potency, but that notwithstanding, it's a good example of the importance of "show, don't tell", as well as a great example of content generating form and form simultaneously giving rise to content; the memories are always tied to Camille's fragmented psychology, with the brief snippets of recollection acting like splinters impinging on her adult existence.
Another interesting aesthetic aspect of the show is its sense of place. Taking place during a hot summer in which the entire cast are permanently sweating, one can practically feel the humidity rising from the screen and smell the pig farm on which so many of the town's people work. But it's not just the sense of tangibility; at times, Wind Gap comes across as surreal enough to be the location of a David Lynch film. The introduction to the town, for example, is a series of long tracking shots which show next-to-no people, as if the place has been abandoned. Later we see Amma and two of her friends perpetually roller-blading around town like the 21st century equivalent of the Moirai, we also meet a little boy who lives with his meth-addicted mother and who carries a gun to ensure their safety.
Thematically, the show covers a lot of ground, almost all of it tied to female experience, specifically motherhood/daughterhood. Adora is a woefully bad mother who made little secret of the fact that she preferred Marian to Camille; when Camille arrives at the house upon her return to Wind Gap, rather than be happy to see her, Adora icily tells her, "I'm afraid the house is not up to par for visitors". In a rare moment of openness, as Camille struggles to understand why Adora treats her the way she does, Adora tells her, "you can't get close. That's your father. And it's why I think I never loved you. You were born to it, that cold nature. I hope that's of some comfort to you". Later she admits that what she wanted from Camille more than anything was the one thing Camille couldn't give her - she wanted Camille to need her.
In a more general sense, the show deals with how women respond to familial trauma. It doesn't engage with feminism at a political or cultural level, but it certainly does so at a personal level, arguing that the pain experienced by abused women is just as valid as that experienced by abused men, that the manifestations of trauma can be just as catastrophic, and that the anger engendered can be just as self-destructive. We're very used to seeing stories focused on angry, damaged, hard-drinking male characters with dark backgrounds who must fight to control the violence within them, but Sharp Objects is a story focused on the female equivalent of that trope. Indeed, Wind Gap is a town where women are locked into the virtuous virgin/rampant harlot binary, a binary created by men. It's a place where a woman's worth correlates directly with her femininity, her maternal instincts, and her obedient acceptance of her place in androcentric societal structures - everything Camille is not.
However, for all that, I couldn't get into Sharp Objects, and by no means did I enjoy it. The biggest problem is the pace. Yes, I understand it's a character drama, not a plot-heavy murder-mystery, but so too was the first season of True Detective and never once did I feel that show was moving too slow. With Sharp Objects, as episode after episode after episode ended flatly, eventually I just stopped caring. Aside from a major incident in the first episode, and a couple of big reveals in the penultimate and last episodes, almost nothing happens. And that's not hyperbole, I mean it very literally. Tied to this is that the show is far, far too long. The novel is 254 pages, and could easily have been adapted in a four-episode run, but trying to stretch it out over eight (it runs 385 minutes) means that there are long periods were the narrative stops dead, with the characters not interesting enough to take up the slack. Elsewhere, the flashback editing is used so often that it loses its potency and ends up feeling like filler designed only to artificially prolong the runtime. It also starts to feel like Vallée is so in love with the technique that he's using it arbitrarily rather than in the service of character or plot. Additionally, the show abounds in clichés - from the alcoholic hard-as-nails journalist to the incompetent local police chief to the out of town detective to whom nobody listens to the gossiping women to the various suspects who are obviously red herrings. Vallée also has a tendency to overuse certain images, thus robbing them of their effectiveness - Amma and her friends roller-blading around town, Amma playing silently with her giant dollhouse, shots of the child Camille being chased through the woods by a group of jocks, shots of Camille filling a water bottle with vodka.
There's a lot to admire in Sharp Objects, but precious little to like. Although not exactly a work of post-MeToo fempowerment, it certainly has a female-centric perspective, and its examination of issues usually associated with men is interesting, saying some fascinating things about female trauma. The performances are top-notch and the editing is decent (albeit overused), but all in all, the show did little for me. I understand that it's designed holistically rather than cumulatively, and I have no problem with that. But the pace is enervating and the characters just aren't interesting enough to fill such a lengthy runtime.
The Brink (2019)
Doesn't us anything we didn't already know
Taking as its subject Steve Bannon, the so-called "Kingmaker" behind Donald Trump's unexpected 2016 election victory, Alison Klayman's documentary The Brink attempts to portray and engage with the controversial alt-right figure without necessarily crossing the line into hagiography or giving a platform to his hateful and divisive rhetoric. Dubbed "The Great Manipulator" by TIME, Bannon's official position in the Trump administration was Chief White House Strategist, an extraordinary rise to power for the former naval officer better known as Vice President of Goldman Sachs and chief executive of Breitbart News than for anything in his capacity as a politician. Seeing himself as spearheading a global alt-right populist movement, called The Movement (and they say the right has no imagination), Bannon is a heroic truth-teller to some, a personification of a hateful, discriminatory, racist ideology to others, in whose worldview the only good American is a white Christian heterosexual American. And whilst The Brink is perfectly adequate as a documentary, it's limited by its identity as a left-leaning film made by a left-leaning filmmaker for a left-leaning audience. Very few people on the right will see it, and those that do will find nothing therein to stimulate any kind of reassessment of their ideology and/or political affiliations. On the contrary, they'll most likely find it validating.
The film begins in August 2017, a few weeks after Bannon was fired from the White House in the wake of the violence at the white supremacist-organised Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Klayman traces Bannon's disastrous endorsement of Roy Moore as Alabama senator, the publication of Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, the subsequent break with Trump due to comments made in the book, his time in Europe, and his campaigning during the 2018 midterms. She focuses on his European activities, where his aim is to unify and centralise the various right-wing populist groups under an overarching banner of national and social conservatism, anti-Islam, anti-immigration, counter-globalism, and Euroscepticism (although the film never addresses the inherent contradictions of a global movement built on counter-globalism or a centralised movement made up of groups whose main aims are nationalist). Klayman accompanied Bannon for the duration of his European travels, embedding herself in his inner circle, where she was granted extraordinary access (partly because she didn't have a crew; it was just her and a camera).
Klayman shoots the film in a cinéma vérité fly-on-the-wall style, letting events play out without really commenting on them (although she does question Bannon directly a couple of times). And this non-intrusive style makes sense, allowing some of Bannon's more outrageous comments to speak for themselves. For example, at a rally in Hungary, he states that The Movement will be built on "old school Christian democracy rooted in the European tradition" (so plenty of room for Muslims); he asserts that "divine providence is about human action" (no, he doesn't seem aware of the oxymoron); he repeatedly claims that "hate is energising" and "hate is a motivator"; and in perhaps his most interesting, if perplexing claim, he refers to China, Iran, and Turkey as the "new Axis".
Bannon's opinions on the mainstream media are also interesting, and on this particular point, I don't disagree with him. He believes that because trust in the media is at such a low ebb, the more obsessed they become with people like him, with right-wing policy in general, with criticising Trump, the better it is, as it simply drives their base further into their camp and gives them a free platform. Bannon himself seems to thrive on the outrage he can elicit from the left-wing media, relying on their emotionalism to trip them up. We do see him challenged a couple of times, but only a couple; Paul Lewis of The Guardian has a contentious interview about whether or not some of his statements can be seen as incitements to racism, whilst Susanna Reid of Good Morning Britain (2014) doesn't let him away with anything in relation to the Unite the Right rally (throughout the interview, Piers Morgan sits silently, happily dreaming about what hat to give Trump the next time they meet).
In terms of aesthetics, some of Klayman's editing is very interesting. For example, she intercuts news reports on Cesar Sayoc and the Tree of Life shooting with Bannon arguing that he's not bigoted or racist. Later, she intercuts scenes of migrants being attacked in Germany with Bannon's five-star hotel meetings with right-wing politicians. In another scene, when he insists that he would never take any non-American money because he's too much of a patriot, Klayman cuts to him meeting Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui, with whom he subsequently has a behind-closed-doors meeting. Perhaps most powerfully, however, after the disastrous 2018 midterms, over scenes of Bannon raging at his underlings and trying to figure out what could possibly have gone wrong, Klayman plays an audio montage of newly-elected Democrat women speaking about their policies and plans and condemning the kind of hatred upon which Bannon thrives.
For all that, however, the film has some significant flaws. Most egregiously, Klayman assumes her audience is in complete and total agreement with her before she's even said anything - that Bannon is a dangerous purveyor of racial-based hatred and prejudice. Because of this, the documentary remains all surface; she doesn't offer a deep dive into his psychology because why would she when the audience already thinks the same way as her? So, there's a real lack of probing and interrogation. In this sense, it's hard to know what anyone will glean from the film. The very few on the right who see it, will read it as yet more evidence of a left-leaning elitist media determined to crush the right; those on the left will simply have their opinions about Bannon reaffirmed.
With this in mind, it's hard to pinpoint exactly what Klayman accomplishes with the film - it doesn't tell us anything about Bannon we didn't already know, and although it does give us access to his workaday world, it doesn't reveal much about his thought processes or private ideology. In the same sense, it isn't going to change anyone's way of thinking about him. So what was the point? Why give such a hateful and dangerous individual so much attention when you don't have anything in mind other than having your audience nod along with you? At best, the film seems to be suggesting that Bannon is a good example of the banality of evil - Klayman is trying to demystify him, painting him as kind of a slick used car salesman, successfully selling cars which he knows are defective. But really, did he need demystifying? How many people honestly thought he was anything special, or somehow more nefarious than we could ever have imagined?
The film also makes some baffling decisions. For example, after the Roy Moore debacle, a subtitle tells us that Bannon was fired from Breitbart, kicked off his own radio show, and cut off by his billionaire donors. However, if Klayman ever asked him about any of this, it doesn't make the final cut. Indeed, we learn next to nothing of his time at Breitbart; what he stood for, why he was so controversial, why so many people argue that Andrew Breitbart himself would have hated what Bannon did to the site. On the other hand, we do get a scene where he is shown looking at old college photos and remarking on how handsome he used to be. Explosive stuff indeed.
The Brink is a perfectly watchable film, but so too is it perfectly forgettable, which, given the subject and the extraordinary access, is hugely disappointing, and must go down as a missed opportunity. Indeed, as the film ended, the only thought I really had in my head was "Bannon would have loved that". Which is not exactly a good thing.
The Dead Don't Die (2019)
Very funny, very peculiar, somewhat didactic
Who could have predicted that celebrated indie writer/director Jim Jarmusch would have any interest in making an ensemble zombie comedy? He has certainly made genre films in the past - Down by Law (1986) is a prison break film, Dead Man (1995) is a western, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) is a samurai film, Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) is about vampires - and usually, he's very successful at grafting his worldview onto the generic tropes, with the resultant films undeniably genre pieces, but undeniably Jim Jarmusch films. With The Dead Don't Die, however, he's not quite as successful; this is very much a Jarmusch film before it's a zombie movie, and it's not hard to see why it has met with mixed responses from critics and audiences - glib socio-political commentary is introduced without really going anywhere; heavily promoted performers have nothing more than one or two-scene cameos; some of the characters know they're in a movie whilst others do not; a lot of the humour is of the flippant self-congratulatory kind; things become very preachy towards the end as Jarmusch abandons all semblance of narrative progression and shifts gears into a pseudo-TED talk.
However, for all that, I enjoyed it. A zombie apocalypse movie set very much in Trump's America, it embraces all the weirdness that such a scenario suggests. And for me, the awkward humour works well for the most part and the meta elements are intriguing but not too distracting. As for the didacticism, well, nothing that Jarmusch says is incorrect; we are a culture ruled by materialism and we are sticking our collective heads in the sand regarding the fact that we're destroying the only home we have. So it might be inelegant, but it's not wrong.
Set in the fictional town of Centerville (pop. 738), strange things are afoot. Despite it being 8pm, the sun is still shining, people's watches have stopped, no one can get any signal on their phone, and the news is full of reports on the recent "polar fracking", which some believe has knocked the earth off its axis. As the sun finally sets on Centerville, two zombies (Sara Driver and Iggy Pop) rise from the grave and set out in pursuit of the one thing all zombies crave...coffee. Very much an ensemble piece, we meet a litany of Centerville residents - police chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray); deputies Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) and Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny); a newly arrived undertaker, Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton); farmer Frank Miller (Steve Buscemi); vagrant Hermit Bob (Tom Waits); hardware store owner Hank Thompson (Danny Glover); gas station owner Bobby Wiggins (Caleb Landry Jones); delivery man Dean (RZA); recently deceased town drunk Mallory O'Brien (Carol Kane); motel owner Danny Perkins (Larry Fessenden); journalist Posie Juarez (Rosie Perez); waitress Fern (Eszter Balint); detainees at a juvenile detention facility Stella (Maya Delmont), Olivia (Taliyah Whitaker), and Geronimo (Jahi Di'Allo Winston); cleaner Lily (Rosal Colon); and out-of-towners Zoe (Selena Gomez), Jack (Austin Butler) and Zack (Luka Sabbat).
If The Dead Don't Die has a single salient theme, it's apathy, suggesting that humanity is sleepwalking its way towards its own extinction. The zombie apocalypse is initially depicted as slow and distant, not something about which to be overly concerned, until suddenly there's no escape. In this sense, Jarmusch uses zombies as double signifiers - they not only represent the apocalypse towards which we are moving, they also represent us, indifferently shuffling our way to an oblivion we know is coming, but which we choose to ignore (at one point, Cliff literally falls into an open grave because he isn't looking where he's going). The film does provide a narrative explanation for why the dead are rising from the grave (the oft-discussed polar fracking), but really, Jarmusch isn't as interested in the "why" as he is in the "how", castigating a moribund and materialist society which has become blind to everything but trivial consumerist gratification.
In short, Jarmusch is suggesting that as a society, we've become zombified; lazy, instinctual, addicted to things that don't matter (whilst the first zombies we meet want coffee, others are on the hunt for WiFi, Siri, Chardonnay, Xanax, and "Fashion"). Indeed, in this sense, one of the film's more subtle (and interesting) points is that the best way to remain outside such societal calcification is to remain on the edges of the social contract - the characters who do best against the zombies are the socially ostracised Zelda, the three kids in the detention facility, and the philosophical Hermit Bob. Indeed, the vast majority of characters respond to the zombies in a blasé manner, suggesting that in these insane times, when so many people are falling all over themselves to normalise the rantings of the racist, misogynistic, incoherent manchild in the Oval Office, even something like the dead rising from the ground is no big deal.
Of course, using zombies as vehicles for social satire isn't exactly new; George A. Romero did it as far back as Night of the Living Dead (1968), which is more about endemic racism than zombies. He did it to even greater effect in Dawn of the Dead (1978), where he targeted materialistic vapidity. Later, he looked at issues such as Reagan-era militarism in Day of the Dead (1985), economic disparity in Land of the Dead (2005), media impartiality in Diary of the Dead (2007), and tribalism in Survival of the Dead (2009). In this tradition, The Dead Don't Die has its eye very much on the climate change-denying administration in Washington; Frank is introduced wearing a MAGA-style baseball cap with a "Keep America White Again" logo, whilst his dog is called Rumsfeld. Indeed, Centerville itself is very much a quintessential Heartland town, the kind where Trump so successfully mobilised his blue collar base. And whilst it remains a comedy, much of what The Dead Don't Die says is deadly serious - the planet is dying; the polar ice caps are melting, and with them, the future of our species; universal scientific guarantees of impending extinction are largely ignored, whilst the idiots in power discard the warnings of their own people, strip away environmental protections, and continually confuse weather and climate.
One element of the film that's especially interesting is the Pirandellian self-reflexivity, with some of the characters aware that they're in a movie, but the rest seemingly oblivious. For example, when Sturgill Simpson's "The Dead Don't Die" begins playing on the radio in Cliff and Ronnie's car, Cliff asks why the song sounds so familiar, and Ronnie explains that it's probably because "it's the theme song". Later, after Ronnie has declared about a million times that "this isn't going to end well", an exasperated Cliff asks him how he can be so certain, and Ronnie says it's because he's read the script. This upsets Cliff because he was only allowed to read the scenes in which he appeared. A few minutes later, when something especially bizarre happens with Zelda, an incredulous Cliff asks Ronnie "was that in the script?" And the point of all this self-reflexivity? If I was to guess, I'd say that Jarmusch is using it in the Brechtian sense to ensure the audience remains consciously critical, more engaged with the narrative on an intellectual level than an emotional level.
For all its positives, however, the film does have some problems. For one thing, the last ten minutes or so will irritate a lot of people, as Jarmusch abandons all semblance of narrative, and gives us a scene over which Hermit Bob delivers a dire assessment of who we are as a species. It's very preachy and it's very didactic. Another issue is the humour, which is best described as Jarmuschian - all awkward stilted dialogue, deadpan one-liners, people repeating things other people have said, and subtle winking at the audience. It definitely isn't the kind of broad stroke humour one finds in zombie comedies, such as Shaun of the Dead (2004) or Zombieland (2009). Some of the political themes are also underexplored. For example, Frank's MAGA hat is a pointed critique of Trump and those who blindly vote for him and excuse his behaviour, but to what end? The trio of kids from the detention centre are also introduced as if they will be major players, but they're gradually forgotten about, and ultimately don't play much of a role in the story. Also, as Jarmusch himself is well aware, the film isn't really saying anything that Romero hasn't already said.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed The Dead Don't Die. It's certainly nowhere near Jarmusch's best, and I can understand people who dislike it; a lot of the themes have been explored before, a lot of the jokes have been made before, and it's neither a terrifying thriller nor a self-conscious meta-comedy. Having said that, however, the socio-political commentary is undeniably relevant and the cast is universally impressive. And ultimately, you may have a problem with the manner with which the film communicates its message, but that doesn't alter the fact that that message is absolutely legitimate.
Very poorly advertised as something it isn't; will be sure to frustrate and impress in equal measure
Much like his feature debut, Hereditary (2018), as well as such recent films as The VVitch: A New-England Folktale (2015) and It Comes at Night (2017), writer/director Ari Aster's Midsommar has been well received by critics but not so much by audiences. And, really, it's not hard to see why; all four films were promoted as horrors when they weren't, drawing in audiences who were disappointed that they didn't get what they were expecting. Midsommar is, at best, a thriller, and even that's pushing it. Whereas Hereditary was a study of grief, it undeniably had horror elements, but in Midsommar, apart from one brief moment involving somebody wearing somebody else's skin (don't ask), there's little resembling a horror trope. What it does have in abundance, however, is dread, and as with Hereditary, it's primarily an allegory built on a foundation of generic tropes. Whereas Hereditary dealt with the lengths one may go to shut off emotional pain, Midsommar is more interested in what happens when the initial pain of bereavement starts to wear off, especially when the only person one feels one can turn to isn't exactly sympathetic to one's situation. Aster himself has called it a "breakup movie", and it's hard to argue against this. And whilst the characters are underwritten, and the film is painfully predictable (especially if you're familiar with The Wicker Man (1973)), it's beautifully crafted, brilliantly shot almost entirely in glaring sunlight, and vastly ambitious. And much like Us (2019), it avoids the sophomore slump without necessarily knocking it out of the park.
The film begins as Dani (a superb Florence Pugh) learns her bipolar sister has killed their parents and subsequently committed suicide. Already emotionally fragile and prone to anxiety attacks even before their deaths, Dani turns for support to her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), an anthropology student struggling to find a topic for his PhD. Christian has wanted to break things off with Dani for some time, as he finds her overly needy, and had been trying to work up to ending the relationship prior to her family dying. The following summer, Dani learns that Christian and fellow students Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) have been invited by Swedish student Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to his ancestral pagan commune in Hårga, where a midsummer celebration that only occurs once every ninety years will be taking place. Dani is upset that Christian didn't tell her about the trip, and to placate her, he invites her to come, never imagining she will say yes. But she does. And it doesn't take long, for the visitors to learn that something isn't right in the commune.
As Aster has said, Midsommar is really a breakup movie, with Christian as a classic manipulator. For example, after Dani learns about the trip, she's understandably upset that he didn't tell her, but in the space of a couple of minutes he manipulates her into apologising to him. The core of the story is her slowly coming to realise that he isn't the man she thought he was, and in a weird way, it's a variation on the female revenge genre. In this sense, it's primarily an allegory for the process of a young woman's emotional/spiritual awakening. Indeed, one could take this even further if one reads the character names as symbolic; Dani's surname is Ardor, but she's denied love, and in the paganism of the commune, she's offered something she can't get from a self-serving Christian(ity).
Aesthetically, the film looks terrific. Whereas the US scenes are dark and confined, taking place in small poorly lit rooms with the characters wearing drab costumes, once the film shifts to Sweden, the visual design changes completely. Henrik Svensson's production design emphasises an open-plan vastness with unlimited space to move, but few places to hide; Pawel Pogorzelski's cinematography drenches everything in glaring sunlight; and Andrea Flesch's costume design focuses on brilliant white. Indeed, the attention to detail in the presentation of the commune is immensely impressive; the long middle act doesn't really feature much in the way of narrative incident, but it does a fine job of creating a milieu that feels authentic and lived-in.
There are also some nice individual moments. For example, the choral singing with which the film begins is harshly interrupted by a telephone ringing, suggesting the clash between tradition and modernity; Dani's hysterical crying upon learning of her family's deaths blends with The Haxan Cloak's discordant music; a superb single-take shot takes Dani from heading to her apartment bathroom to entering the bathroom of an airplane; a high altitude shot showing a car travelling along a country road is imbued with malevolent undercurrent as the car passes under the camera, but rather than turning around to pick the vehicle up on the reverse angle, the camera follows the car by turning downwards, ending up upside-down.
In terms of the narrative design, somewhat unusually, the film wears its predictability on its sleeve, with many of the major narrative beats not only foreshadowed but literally shown to the audience prior to occurring in the story, whether it be the mural that opens the film or the illustrations seen on the walls all over the commune. With that in mind, anyone who has seen any folk horror will be able to predict much of what happens. Even if you're only familiar with The Wicker Man, you'll still be able to take a decent stab at how things turn out.
As for the acting, much as Hereditary was Toni Collette's, Midsommar belongs entirely to Florence Pugh. For most of the film, she's on the precipice of a nervous breakdown, with her performance redolent of Shelley Duvall in The Shining (1980). This is easily her best and most layered performance thus far, especially the gamut of contradictory emotions she runs in the insane last 20 minutes. Elsewhere, the performances are all fine, but the actors aren't helped by the script. As Christian, Jack Reynor is the least convincing academic ever put on screen, although he does do a decent job of getting the audience to loathe his passive-aggressive persona. Will Poulter plays Mark as the kind of ignorant sex-crazed loudmouth that seems to only exist in the movies. As Josh, William Jackson Harper barely registers, whilst Vilhelm Blomgren's Pelle is so obviously untrustworthy that it pushes suspension of disbelief to breaking point.
As this might suggest, one of the biggest problems with the film is the underwritten characters. Additionally, Dani and Christian's relationship is demarcated along stereotypical lines - the emotional female whose need for support becomes overwhelming and the thoughtless bro who is more interested in hanging out with the boys. Another issue is that even aside from the character of Pelle, the film pushes suspension of disbelief too far. There are multiple moments when the goings-on should prompt the visitors to leave immediately, but they repeatedly accept the most ridiculous of situations based upon the most tenuous of explanations. Indeed, in a lot of ways, they're no different from the idiots who get picked off one-by-one in so many cheap slasher films.
Additionally, as already mentioned, there are few surprises here. Aster is obviously a big fan of folk horror, but he allows reverence to the tropes supersede narrative inventiveness, leading to predictability. Also, as in Hereditary, the explanation for what's going on isn't anywhere near as interesting as the ambiguity preceding it.
That said, however, I did enjoy Midsommar. Aesthetically impressive, and built on a terrific central performance, it could be cited as an example of a filmmaker whose ambitions outweigh his abilities, but ultimately, Aster's mastery of tone sees him through. The script could use some work, no doubt, but the ominous sense of dread is palpable throughout and is brilliantly handled, whilst the depiction of the death throes of a toxic relationship is as penetrating and emotionally honest as any ostensible relationship drama. Unnerving and audacious, Midsommar is an exceptionally confident piece of filmmaking, if not necessarily an exceptional piece of filmmaking.
An interesting approach to the story, but the tone is poorly managed
Directed by Joe Berlinger immediately after completing work on Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (2019), Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is worth seeing for Zac Efron's performance, but is a strangely muted affair, neither ghoulish warts-and-all carnage nor restrained psychological treatise. Telling the story of Ted Bundy from the perspective of a woman who was oblivious to his true nature is an interesting narrative choice, and had Berlinger stuck to this format, it could have made for a fascinating film. However, the longer it goes on, the more it seems to revel in Bundy's flamboyance, and what begins as an intriguing insider's look at living with a killer soon shifts into an underwhelming courtroom drama, only returning to its original tone in the final (fictional) scene.
The film begins in 1969, the night Bundy (Efron) and nm10616856 (Lily Collins) first met in a Seattle bar. As a single mother with a low-paying job, she is surprised to find this charismatic, handsome, and intelligent law student so interested in her, but interested he is, with the duo quickly falling in love. However, six years later, when he is stopped in Utah for a minor traffic violation, the police find ropes, handcuffs, ski mask, leather gloves, and a crowbar in his car, and he is subsequently charged with and convicted of attempted kidnapping. He vehemently protests his innocence to Liz, and although concerned, she accepts his explanations. However, as police departments across California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, and Florida start to connect him to a string of recent murders, it becomes harder and harder for Liz to deny there's more to her boyfriend than she ever imagined.
Very loosely based on Liz Kloepfer's memoir, The Phantom Prince: My Life With Ted Bundy (1981), Extremely Wicked was written by Michael Werwie. The hook for the original script was that the audience is unaware the character is Bundy; the film was written as a supposedly fictional story of a young couple whose life is shattered when he is accused of multiple murders, with his real identity only coming as a final act twist. As Berlinger was completing The Ted Bundy Tapes, the script was offered to him, and although he found the twist distasteful, he loved the idea of looking at the Bundy story through the eyes of someone who thought him to be innocent.
One of the biggest appeals of the movie, of course, is the unexpected casting of Zac Efron as Bundy (Efron also serves as executive producer). And it has to be said, he's excellent. Although he doesn't really look like Bundy, he has the mannerisms down to a tee. Especially if you watch the film after the docu-series, you'll really pick up on the depth of the performance; Efron's every movement and gesture, the way he smiles, the way he stands, the tone of his voice, everything is perfect. Of course, Bundy's good looks and charisma were his most formidable weapons as he proved that evil could fester under an attractive façade, and this gives Efron room to manoeuvre, playing every scene in such a way that the subtext is always apparent, although never allowing Bundy's mask to slip. Indeed, it's the absence of any obvious monstrousness in the performance which is so unnerving.
One of the film's most notable components is that, apart from one brief scene near the end, there is no depiction of violence. As Liz's story, the idea is to present Bundy not with the 20/20 hindsight of history, but with the same degree of ambiguity with which she would have viewed him. It's an interesting way into the story and seems a genuine attempt to do something more than simply reproduce the salacious details of the crimes. Of course, if you're making a film about a serial killer which doesn't feature much in the way of serial killing, you're going to need to fill it with something, and in this sense, Berlinger focuses, at least in the first half, on how a killer can lie and manipulate, coming across as completely normal to all who know him. Berlinger has said that the film is about the mechanics of how a person can be "seduced by someone capable of evil", and it was his intention that the audience actually like Bundy, as he wanted them to feel disgust with themselves - just like Liz, he wanted them to be seduced by evil.
However, as admirable as this approach is, the film has a lot of problems. For one thing, because it depicts Bundy not as we now know him but as his contemporaries saw him, it means we only see the performative side, never the monstrous underbelly. Sure, this means that the film avoids exploitation, but in doing so, it could be accused of sanitisation (to be fair, this is something of a damned if you do, damned if you don't scenario - show the murders and you're exploiting real-life suffering, don't show them and you're hiding the true nature of his crimes). And granted, portraying him as a possibly innocent man is part of the attempt to explain how Liz could be duped, but all the good intentions in the world don't change the fact that the film's Bundy is a lovable rogue who bites his thumb at the system, not a murderer, a man who raped and butchered a 12-year-old child, and who decapitated multiple women and had sex with their corpses.
I understand that Berlinger wants to depict how Liz could have been blinded by devotion to a man that she thought (correctly, as it turned out) was too good to be true. But the problem is that she herself is never characterised enough for this to work; everything we learn about her is predicated on her relationship with him - there's nothing about her life prior to meeting him, and what we learn about her life after he was convicted is primarily fictional. Additionally, the focus shift halfway through as the film transitions from Liz as subjective focaliser to a more objectively focalised courtroom drama makes very little tonal sense. It's almost as if Berlinger loses interest in Liz when the sensationalist trial begins. This transition reduces Liz to a cycle of watching the trial, crying, doubting his guilt, drinking, watching the trial, crying etc, as she's effectively stripped of what little agency she had in the first half.
Another problem is that we learn nothing new about Bundy himself; there's nothing about his childhood, for example, or how he got away with the murders for so long, whether he really loved Liz, or if he genuinely lacked the ability to feel empathy. Along the same lines, we learn nothing whatsoever about the victims. This was also a problem in the docu-series, but it's far more pronounced here, and because of this, the decision to put the names of his known victims on screen at the end of film is unearned, crass, and meaningless.
The film also makes some strange changes to documented fact, many of which seem designed to make Bundy more sympathetic. For example, there's no mention of the fact that he tried multiple times to pressure Liz into rough sex, particularly choking. Another scene sees him forcibly restrained in his cell whilst a dentist takes impressions of his teeth. In reality, the impressions were taken in a dentist chair, and Bundy quite happily allowed the dentist to work. The film also shows him continuing to try to contact Liz throughout his incarceration. In reality, however, he lost contact with her in the early 80s, and there's no evidence he tried to find her.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is by no means a bad film. But it could have been so much better. The shift from subjective focalisation to court-room drama makes very little sense, and fundamentally undermines what Berlinger seems to have been trying to do. The film initially looks at how evil can hide in plain view, creeping into our lives under the guise of normalcy, but Berlinger allows this theme to recede into the background as he hands the narrative over to Bundy. If this was supposed to be Liz's story, Berlinger takes his eye off the ball badly. And although the film certainly doesn't sympathise with Bundy, and although the decision not to show any of the murders is commendable, the fact is that, yet again, Ted Bundy has become very much the star of his own show.
More of a conventional documentary than advertised, but it provides a good overview, and is a nice companion to the film
In many ways, Ted Bundy is the archetypal serial killer, embodying many of the characteristics we today associate with such criminals. Most significantly, perhaps, is that he was the first celebrity serial killer, and remains the best-known example (Charles Manson doesn't count; he wasn't a serial killer). Bundy was a man whom the media fell all over itself to profile, fascinated with his charm, humour, and intelligence. Most importantly, he embodies something we take as given today - media and cultural fixation with killers, almost always at the expense of their victims. And although Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes certainly has merit, and is extremely well-made, it's also somewhat guilty of the same thing - focusing on the killer whilst giving little time over to the victims. Written and directed by Joe Berlinger, one gets the distinct impression that Bundy himself, with all his narcissism, sense of the dramatic, and delusions of grandeur, would have been immensely happy with it. And that's not really a good thing.
Conversations is derived from over 100 hours of audio recordings of Bundy, the transcripts of which have been available online for many years, but which have never actually been heard before. In early 1980, sitting on death row and vehemently maintaining his innocence, Bundy began to seek someone to write a biography that he hoped would disprove his guilt. Enter Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth; whilst Aynesworth set about re-examining the evidence, Michaud began interviewing Bundy. Neither had any doubts as to Bundy's guilt, but they recognised how good a story it was.
One of the most important aspects of the series, is that Bundy would not discuss the murders, and so, to trick him into talking about them, Michaud asked him to act as a kind of consultant and to speculate as to the killer's motives and sociopathy. Not recognising that Michaud was exploiting his narcissism, Bundy immediately began to talk about the murderer in the third person.
And to say that some of his statements are fascinating is a major understatement. For example, conjecturing as to the origins of the murderer's psychopathy, he states, "perhaps this person hoped that through violence, through this violent series of acts, with every murder leaving a person of this type hungry. Unfulfilled. But also leave him with the obviously irrational belief that the next time he did it he would be fulfilled." Speaking of the killer's attitude to women, he states, "women are merchandise. From the pornographic to Playboy right on up to the evening news. So there is no denying the sexual component. However, sex has significance only in the context of a much broader scheme of things. That is, possession, control, violence." Concerning the killer's sexual urges, he states, "the early manifestations of this condition, which is an interest concerning sexual images, your standard fare that you'd see in the movie house or in Playboy magazine. The interest becomes skewed toward a more specialised literature, some of it pretty grotesque, which would preoccupy him more and more. It would reach a point where the anger, the frustration, the anxiety, the poor self-image, feeling cheated, wronged, insecure, he decides upon young attractive women being his victims."
However, despite quotes such as this, the promise of an unprecedented deep dive into Bundy's psyche is never really followed through, with Conversations more of a conventional documentary than you might expect. This is not necessarily a criticism, as the chosen biographical material, whilst never earth-shatteringly original, is interesting and extremely well put together; his involvement with the Vietnam Anti-war Movement, his work on Daniel J. Evans's 1972 re-election campaign for Governor of Washington, his volunteering for a Suicide Hotline, his work as Assistant Director of the Seattle Crime Prevention Advisory Commission (where he wrote a well-received pamphlet for women on, of all things, rape prevention),
A very interesting moment is that during his 1979 trial, where he acted as his own co-council, Bundy repeatedly made Officer Ray Crew go into minute detail about the murder scene at the Chi Omega sorority house. It's a fascinatingly disturbing scene, with Bundy not just relishing his power, but vicariously reliving the night of perhaps his most savage murders. Also interesting is that as he sat on death row, Dorothy Otnow Lewis, Professor of Psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine, examined him and diagnosed bipolar disorder and possible multiple personality disorder, arguing there was something unique about his brain which made him literally incapable of empathy.
An equally fascinating aspect of the series, but one which is under-explored, is how Bundy's white privilege factored into his murders. As a well-educated, well-dressed, humorous, respectable middle-class white man, obviously intelligent, and seemingly charming, he was able to hide in plain sight, because no one could conceive of a man like him being a sadistic murderer. Even after his initial conviction and double death sentence, Judge Edward Cowart told him, "you'd have made a good lawyer and I would have loved to have you practice in front of me, but you went another way, partner. I don't feel any animosity toward you. I want you to know that. Take care of yourself." In this sense, Bundy's reign of terror is, in effect, an indictment of American society and the importance of inherited privilege, as he set about charming all with whom he came into contact.
The problem with the series, however, is that it falls into the same trap; Bundy's wit and charm appears to win Berlinger over. The last episode, "Burn Bundy Burn (2019)", in particular, is guilty of giving him the ball and letting him run with it, especially in the extensive use of court footage, with Bundy turning the trial into his own personal variety show. Any hint of getting under his skin completely fades away at this point, as Berlinger seems to be just as fascinated with Bundy's antics as the media and public were at the time. To be fair, the show doesn't glorify him; Berlinger ensures the audience knows he was a monster. However, he is clearly enamoured, raising the question of when does documenting a violent narcissist transition into giving them a platform?
With this in mind, unfortunately (but predictably), the victims receive relatively little attention. All of his 26 known victims are mentioned by name at least once and at least one photo of each is shown, but many are never mentioned beyond this. Some, like his youngest victim, 12-year-old Kimberly Leach, receive a fair bit of attention, but others are lumped together. Berlinger makes no real effort to characterise them. Instead of giving us a vivid illustration of who they were by interviewing family and friends, Berlinger gives us a rough pencil sketch made up of contemporary news reports.
Aside from the side-lining of victims, the most obvious issue with Conversations is that it's a far more conventional piece than a deep dive into previously untapped reservoirs of Bundy's psyche. Part of the reason for this is the dearth of actual audio material, as from the 100 hours available, Berlinger uses about 20 minutes all told. Pretty much everything else is standard bio material, nothing that anyone familiar with the case won't already know.
There are also some very strange aesthetic choices. For example, as Bundy discusses his relationship with Elizabeth Kloepfer, a montage of contemporaneous footage depicts exactly what he's talking about (so, for example, when me mentions eating dinner, there's a shot of a family sitting around the dinner table and a close up of a can of soup being opened; when he mentions being nervous, we see someone biting their nails). It's a spectacularly on-the-nose montage that accomplishes nothing other than drawing attention to itself. A similar moment sees Bundy discussing sexuality, and Berlinger shows us a rapid montage of hardcore S&M porn, which is not only distasteful, it's ideologically reductionist. The worst example is when Carol DaRonch, one of five victims to survive Bundy, mentions that when he tried to handcuff her, her life flashed before her, and Berlinger literally inserts a montage of quaint home movie footage.
If all that sounds very negative, however, let me be clear, I did enjoy Conversations, I was just a little disappointed in it. People already familiar with the case won't learn anything new, and those looking for a unique entry-point into the mind of a killer will be left wanting. Nevertheless, this is the story of a sociopathic narcissist that comments not just on societal privilege, but which also interrogates our own ghoulish fascination with such monsters. And yes, Berlinger seems unaware of the glaring irony here, but that doesn't change the fact that he has fashioned the ramblings of a mad man into a fascinating piece of work.
Ted Bundy: Serial Monster (2018)
Sensationalistic with an overly on-the-nose narration, but it offers a decent introduction to Bundy
Originally airing on Reelz in the US as two two-hour episodes, Ted Bundy: Serial Monster was later aired on the Really channel in the UK and Ireland as four one-hour episodes. And honestly, there isn't a huge amount to say about it, as it's your basic introductory piece. Played in reconstructions by Adam Long, the show relates Ted Bundy's bio from his birth in Burlington, Vermont in November 1946 to his execution in the electric chair in Florida in January 1989.
The show opens with one of Bundy's creepiest moments - the audio from an interview with Det. Robert D. Keppel shortly before his execution in which he admitted to murdering Georgann Hawkins in 1974, passionlessly whispering, "the Hawkins girl's head was severed and taken up the road about 25 to 50 yards and buried in a location about ten yards west of the road on a rocky hillside" (Keppel was interviewing Bundy in the hopes of getting some insight into the Green River Killer case, as related in Keppel's 1995 book, The Riverman: Ted Bundy and I Hunt for the Green River Killer).
Naturally enough, the show foregrounds certain elements of Bundy's life. For example, it gives quite a bit of info on something barely mentioned in Joe Berlinger's Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (2019); Bundy's first serious romantic relationship, with Diane Edwards, who called him "pitifully weak" before breaking up with him. This is seen as a pivotal event by several of the interviewees (including Kevin Sullivan, author of The Bundy Murders: A Comprehensive History, crime writer Shirley Lynn Scott, and forensic psychologist Shannon Smith), who trace much of Bundy's rage and hatred for women back to his humiliation at Edwards's hands. There's also plenty of info on someone not mentioned in Conversations; the first woman to escape Bundy's clutches, Rhonda Stapley, who remained silent about her ordeal for 40 years for fear of how her conservative family would react. The show also gives some information on something ignored in both Conversations and Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019); Bundy's attempts to inculcate his girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer into rough sex, especially choking. It also shows extracts from his famous last interview, with James Dobson, in which he traces his psychopathy back to watching porn as a child. And the show ends on the tantalising question (ignored in Conversations) that Bundy's maternal grandfather may have been his biological father.
The biggest downside is the unnecessary sensationalism. If there's one thing the Bundy case doesn't require, it's more salaciousness, but as the "Serial Monster" title indicates, everything is ramped up here to a ridiculous degree, especially the voiceover narration. Delivered by the show's executive producer Michael Hoff as if he's reading from an especially bad comic, the opening narration dramatically intones, "he's heartless, merciless, a voracious hunter of women, but what lies behind the psychopathic mind of a raging serial killer, what drives his insatiable lust for power, for control, for blood?" And really, it stays in that key for the entire four hours.
One thing that I thought worked very well, however, (albeit part of the sensationalist tendencies) is the motif of flashing shots of the real Bundy onto actor Adam Long's face. It's a little garish, but it's also somewhat unsettling and jolting, which was presumably the point.
So, all in all, nothing here that you wouldn't be able to find from reading Bundy's Wikipedia page, but as an introduction to the subject, it's fairly solid.
The Virtues (2019)
Starts slow, but really picks up, with the last 20 minutes a masterclass in how to build tension with simple parallel editing; be warned though, it's not pleasant viewing
The Virtues tells the story of Joe (a career-best performance by one of the finest actors alive today, Stephen Graham), a recovering alcoholic working as painter and decorator in Liverpool. With his ex-girlfriend, their son, and her new partner heading to Australia to start a new life, although they have promised Joe he's welcome to visit, he's having a hard time coping. Heading to a nearby pub, he goes on an almighty bender, awakening in his dingy bedsit the next morning covered in vomit and with virtually no memory of the night before. And, as you do in such situations, he impulsively takes a ferry to Belfast. Walking across the border into Louth, he arrives at the house of Anna (Helen Behan) and her husband Michael (Frank Laverty). Dishevelled and vaguely threatening, although he insists she knows him, she's adamant she doesn't, and just as Michael looks as if he's about to get physical, Anna suddenly recognises Joe as the brother whom she thought dead for the last thirty years. To reveal too much else about the plot would constitute a spoiler, but a few important characters are introduced in the second episode, who will come to have a vital role in the ensuing story, namely Dinah (Niamh Algar, in what will hopefully be a breakout role), Michael's tough-as-old-boots sister, and Craigy (an almost unbearably heart-breaking Mark O'Halloran), one of Michael's employees. As Joe sets about re-establishing links with Anna, we are slowly filled in on why they were separated, why she thought he was dead, and why he is so mentally fragile. At the same time, we learn that just as he is haunted by a trauma from his past so too is Dinah; and although her demons are of a different nature, they are no less emotionally crippling.
Written by Shane Meadows and Jack Thorne, and directed by Meadows, The Virtues is loosely inspired by an incident from Meadows's own childhood (to say too much about this would be a spoiler). And as with everything Meadows does, the show is exceptionally well made and effortlessly naturalistic. The milieu of his This is England franchise is a brutal place of violence, racism, and rape, a place controlled by hyper-masculine types, the kind of men who believe the term "toxic masculinity" is an oxymoron (or they would if they knew what an oxymoron was). The Virtues isn't set in entirely the same thematic universe (the female characters are far less passive, the male characters aren't afraid of showing their emotions), but the bleakness is the same; both worlds are occupied by broken people, the only difference is that in The Virtues, they know they're broken.
Aesthetically, The Virtues is impressive without being showy. Bringing his usual sense of cinéma vérité, Meadows does allow himself a couple of flourishes, although they are always justified by the narrative. For example, he shoots Joe's drunken quest for a kebab in the first episode using a fish-eye lens attached to Graham's chest. This creates the sense of a distorted world, without the character ever leaving the frame (or indeed, the very centre of the frame, as the world seems to literally pivot around him). Even the aural design of this scene is different from that of the surrounding scenes, tying us tightly to Joe's compromised perceptions. Another good example is that throughout the first two episodes, Meadows intercuts what seem to be old home movies shot on VHS, before revealing in the third episode that we're actually seeing something quite different.
Structurally, the show is quite unusual. The first episode features next to no plot, serving only to introduce us to Joe. The second doesn't feature a huge amount either, instead focusing on introducing Anna, Michael, Dinah, and Craigy. It's only in the third episode that a recognisable plot with forward-momentum starts to emerge. As unusual a structure as this is, it works well because of the acting, and because it allows Meadows to focus on conveying Joe's repressed pain without the need to worry about narrative beats.
However, the pièce de résistance from an aesthetic point of view is definitely the last 20 minutes of the final episode. To explain what's happening would be to spoil things, but essentially, it's a masterclass in how to create tension with very simple parallel editing. Thanks to the time he has taken to really set up the characters, this final sequence is insanely powerful, nullifying any perceived drag in the first two episodes. Sure, the change in pace could be argued to veer into thriller territory (there's even a race-against-the-clock vibe, and a voiceover of one character desperately trying to get another to answer their phone), whilst the parallel editing could be seen as a concession to artifice, but really, the transition from the documentarian to this more obviously directorially manipulated section is so organic as for the whole thing to work beautifully. In weaker hands, this shift could easily have destroyed the integrity of the piece, but Meadows turns it into one of the most intense passages you'll see all year, not just in TV, but in all filmed drama.
Thematically, the opening scenes of the first episode establish Joe as weary and exhausted as he slumps in a van returning home from work. We don't know anything about him yet, but it's immediately apparent that all is not right with his character, that there's a dead weight. Indeed, emotional weight is one of the show's main themes; not just Joe's but so too Anna's, Dinah's, and Craigy's - all are haunted in one way or another, all are seeking redemption, and if they can't find it, then they seek to escape. For Joe, that involves alcohol; for Dinah, it's violence and hooking up with questionable men. Joe doesn't know why he is so mentally scarred, he just knows that he is, that he is corroding from the inside, and that pain is about the only thing he feels anymore (except when drunk).
Speaking of Joe's drinking, the first episode scene in which he visits a pub is exceptionally well put together, realistically showing us an alcoholic deeply at war with himself. Initially ordering a soft drink, he hesitatingly then orders a beer, makes several attempts to drink, before taking a sip, grimacing, then another, and finally a gulp, giving himself over to the alcohol. All of this is done with virtually no dialogue. What follows is a series of vignettes each set about 15 minutes apart, charting Joe loosening up, ordering more pints, then pints and chasers, then speaking to anyone and everyone in the bar - the sullen loner becoming the life and soul, his mood lubricated by the double vodkas he's downing like water. By the time he's expelled from the bar, he's a mess, falling down drunk, fighting an invisible enemy in the street. It's an extraordinary sequence, with a tour de force performance from Graham, and perfectly modulated rhythm from Meadows and editor Matthew Gray.
Of course, the acting is immense throughout. Graham is all repressed pain and stiff upper lip; Algar is the opposite, wearing everything on her shelve and prone to violent outbursts; Behan (a part-time nurse) is all guilt and remorse; and O'Halloran's soft-spoken Craigy is pain personified, looking for someone, anyone, to help him lighten the burden of living. A scene when Joe and Anna get reacquainted is especially brilliant, with its false starts, overlapping sentences, phrasal repetitions, and thematic circling; the kind of things you often find in emotionally traumatic real-life conversations, but rarely see done well on screen. A simple scene shot in a master and two close-ups, the nearly nine-minute sequence is as awkward as it is heart-breaking, and is followed by an equally awkward, although slightly funnier scene in which Anna and Michael try to explain to their children why they thought Joe was dead. On paper, Dinah runs the risk of becoming a clichéd feisty Irish lass. But in the hands of Algar, she's someone whose pain is no less pronounced than Joe's, someone whose behaviour is based wholly on her mental instability. Liam Carney also gives a terrific performance as Damon, a pivotal one-scene role, deeply pathetic but exuding menace and unrepentant sadism, as does Aisling Glenholmes as Apphia, Michael and Dinah's mother, all prime, moralistic, condescending religiosity; the worst type of Irish Catholic. Both are loathsome, but both are portrayed brilliantly.
The Virtues is an exceptional piece of work by an exceptional filmmaker. Undeniably bleak, it will undoubtedly be too much for some. However, this is not misery porn, not even close. In Meadows, misery is never gratuitous, because he never loses sight of a sense of catharsis, which is so vital for work of this nature. It starts exceptionally slowly, with little plot in either of the first two episodes, but the astonishing central performances carry it, and it reaches a crescendo of unprecedented power in its final episode. Disturbing, harrowing, bleak, but extremely impressive.
In Fabric (2018)
Very strange, very stylish, very funny, but not for everyone
One of the most visually and aurally accomplished filmmakers currently working, writer/director Peter Strickland has thus far enjoyed considerable critical acclaim and some limited arthouse, but has been unable to make much of a mainstream impact. Not that he seems remotely bothered by this, as his latest, In Fabric, is easily the most impenetrable work in his oeuvre. Although he definitely flirts with embracing the transformative power of fine clothing, he is far more interested in mocking some of the more crass elements of consumerism, particularly the pernicious lure of "the bargain", and the herd mentality manufactured, maintained, and exploited by retail corporations during Black Friday (an event that if witnessed by aliens would surely lead to them judging us too intellectually rudimentary to bother conquering). In Fabric's biggest problem is that it's made up off two loosely-connected storylines, but because the first one is so much more interesting, it leads to some narrative slackness in the second half, and all in all, it's not a patch on his best work to date, The Duke of Burgundy (2014). Nevertheless, it's brilliantly acted, looks (and sounds) amazing, has an unparalleled commitment to the more tactile elements of the medium, is exceptionally funny, and will never allow you look at a washing machine repairman in quite the same way again.
Set in a London suburb at an unspecified point in the 1980s, the film tells the story of bank teller Sheila Woolchapel (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, playing the role as if she's in a piece of 1960s social realist cinema). A recently-divorced mother to a teenage son, Vince (Jaygann Ayeh), whose girlfriend Gwen (Gwendoline Christie having an absolute blast) seems to have moved in without asking, Sheila's life is in a rut. Having recently placed a lonely-hearts ad in the paper, she has an upcoming date, is determined to make a good first impression, and so visits a Dentley & Soper department store looking to buy something nice in the January sales. All but accosted by Eastern European sales assistant Miss Luckmoore (Strickland regular Fatma Mohamed, who gleefully plays the role like she's in a Halloween special of The Simpsons (1989)), she is talked into buying an "artery red" dress. However, it doesn't take long for Sheila to realise that something is not entirely kosher about the garment - from prompting dog attacks to trashing her washing machine to floating above her bed, clearly the dress is as nefarious as a Dublin-made shell suit (although it looks slightly less ridiculous), and has nothing but bad intentions for Sheila. Meanwhile, the wedding of washing machine repairman Reg (Leo Bill) and his fiancée Babs (Hayley Squires) is fast approaching; Sheila's micromanaging bosses, Stash and Clive (a hilarious Julian Barratt and Steve Oram, respectively), have some concerns over her method of shaking hands; Luckmoore and her boss, Lundy (Richard Bremmer), spend their free time doing something questionable to a mannequin; and a game of Ludo between Sheila, Vince, and Gwen redefines the term passive-aggressive.
In Fabric is fundamentally a consumerist satire, along the lines of Dawn of the Dead (1978). The malignant control that capitalism exerts on the masses, the commodification of desire, the exploitation and manipulation of notions of self-worth - all are interwoven into the film's style and texture. Strickland has a real talent for using his themes to elevate style into something more meaningful, and In Fabric provides more evidence of that, with the highly-stylised aesthetic commenting on the ultimate emptiness of retail therapy. Leaning into the artificiality of the film's milieu, Strickland makes no attempt to construct a believable, lived-in world, asking not only how do the customers of Dentley & Soper not realise something is wrong, but so too querying whether our own real-world behaviour is any different when we see an item we've been craving turn up in a sale.
With that in mind, although this is not an especially realistic film, it is an absolutely gorgeous film, and gleefully embraces gaudy 70s kitsch. Reproducing the hyper-stylised look of classic giallos, the most obvious touchstone is Suspiria (1977), with Strickland and cinematographer Ari Wegner bathing the film in a lurid colour palette of over-the-top reds, purples, and greens. The other-worldly vibe is helped immensely by Cavern Of Anti-Matter's synth score full of harsh electronic screams and repetitive droning, and the queasy, disorientating sound design by Martin Pavey. Filling the soundtrack with non-diegetic whispering and incantations, the aural design keeps the viewer constantly on edge, as if the evil in the dress has somehow infected the magnetic track - just listen to the sounds of the bargain-hunting crowds in Dentley & Soper, with the incoherent mumbling of their stampede into the store turned into a chaotic, animal-like din.
One of the film's most successful elements, and one of the reasons it's so funny, is how ultra-seriously everyone takes the whole thing. Jean-Baptiste, Bill, and Squires all play their parts as if they're in a Ken Loach film (which all three have been in the past), whilst Strickland, for his part, approaches the whole endeavour with a similar reverence - there's no winking at the audience here, and it's the absence of such winking that makes it all so funny. From Stash and Clive explaining the correct etiquette when meeting the mistress of one's boss to the sexual power that Reg has over women once he starts explaining the inner workings of a washing machine, the film's humour is rooted firmly in the fact that no one acts like they're in a comedy (just look at the Ludo game from hell or the scene where Stash and Clive discuss the difference between "looking for staff" and "trying to find staff"). The scenes of the dress crawling around Sheila's house are especially funny partly because they look so ridiculous (you can all but see the wires leading off-camera), but mainly because Strickland treats them with complete sincerity. A film about an evil dress shouldn't work on any level except parody, yet it's precisely because the film doesn't seem parodic that it works so well. This is particularly true of the insane proclamations uttered by Luckmoore ("the hesitation in your voice is soon to be an echo in the recesses of the spheres of retail"; "our perspectives on the specters of mortality must not be confused by an askew index of commerce"; "dimensions and proportions transcend the prisms of our measurements"; "did the transaction validate your paradigm of consumerism?"). This is pure verbal diarrhoea, and can only be in any way effective if it's roundly mocked. And yet, it's the utter dearth of mockery that renders each statement so hilarious.
In terms of problems, by the very nature of what he's trying to accomplish, Strickland is somewhat guilty of allowing the film's sensual elements to overwhelm the characters. Certainly, the film burrows under your skin and lodges there, and Strickland has absolute mastery of the tone, but aside from Luckmoore, none of the characters really linger because none are especially interesting as people. From an emotional point of view, there just isn't a huge amount of empathy or pathos. Also, because the Sheila plot is so much more interesting that the Reg plot, the film seems front-loaded, which is never good. And although it didn't bother me, some people will really dislike the amount of loose ends, unexplained background elements, and narrative dead ends, especially in the last act.
Nevertheless, I really enjoyed In Fabric. Yet more evidence that Strickland is a master stylist (in the best sense of the term), the craft behind the film is simply beyond reproach. Feeling for all the world like a rediscovered giallo, lost for the last four decades and restored to its original glory (complete with very questionable dubbing), it's cryptic and impenetrable, but so too is it hilarious and a feast for the senses. No one makes films quite like Strickland, where the existential and esoteric rub shoulders with the tactile and the sensual, where the textures of the milieu leap off the screen right alongside the themes. Hypnotic, seductive, immensely enjoyable, In Fabric is quite unlike anything you'll see all year.
Diego Maradona (2019)
A fitting tribute to perhaps the greatest of all time - in all his genius, sagacity, hedonism, and excess
In his third feature-length documentary, director Asif Kapadia turns for the first time to a still-living subject; arguably the greatest footballer to ever lace up a pair of boots, Diego Armando Maradona. As famous for his on-field brilliance as his lavish lifestyle and volatility off the pitch, Maradona lived (and continues to live) his controversial life very much in the public eye. A complex web of contradictions (religious but hedonistic; humble but arrogant; frugal but materialistic; respectful but condescending), he is depicted as uniquely and supremely talented, but unable to handle the fame.
An important connection between Kapadia's three subjects (Ayrton Senna, Amy Winehouse, and Maradona) is that all three were destroyed, one way or another, by their talent - Senna died in a Formula 1 crash aged 34, Amy Winehouse succumbed to alcohol poisoning aged 27, and Maradona became a victim of his own success; in the prime of his life, his career imploded amidst legal trouble, vilification in the press, controversy on the field, an illegitimate son, cocaine, bans, and association with the Camorra. Somehow, he survived it all, going on to manage several teams, including his beloved Argentina, and although the film ends on something of an unnecessary downer, and although the narrow focus on the period from 1984 to 1992 will be sure to disappoint those looking for a more conventional overview, the fact is that it's in those few years where the legend was born, where it reached its apotheosis, and where it ultimately self-destructed.
Made with the cooperation of the man himself, Kapadia was granted access to Maradona's personal video archives. This is actually the second time a documentarian filmmaker has been allowed into the archives; the first was Emir Kusturica, whose Maradona by Kusturica (2008) is a more conventional bio. Wisely, Kapadia only uses footage which Kusturica did not, so there's no overlap between the two films.
Kapadia and his regular editor Chris King begin the film with some brief biographical material about Maradona's childhood and early professional career, before focusing on some of the major events from 1984-1992 - his arrival at Napoli for a then world-record fee of £6.9 million, when he was welcomed at the Stadio San Paolo by 85,000 fans; his disappointing first season; the 1986 World Cup, in which he scored both the greatest goal of all time and one of the most controversial, leading a very average Argentinian squad to victory; the birth of his illegitimate son, Diego Sinagra; Napoli's first ever league title in the 1986-1987 Serie A season; his growing association with the Giuliano crime family and his spiralling cocaine addiction; Napoli's second Serie A title, 1988-1989; their first European title, the 1989 UEFA Cup; the 1990 World Cup, in which Maradona found himself lining out for Argentina against Italy at the San Paolo - a high-pressure situation that wasn't helped when he said in an interview before the match that Naples wasn't really Italy, and he expected the Napoli fans to cheer for Argentina rather than their national team; his vilification in the press after scoring a key penalty; the Napoli fans turning on him; his April 1991 arrest and 15-month suspension for testing positive for cocaine; his low-key departure from Napoli in 1992.
One of the things the film does exceptionally well is simply to remind us just how insanely talented Maradona was. Never the finest physical specimen, as is mentioned in the film, his greatest asset wasn't his acceleration and speed, his difficult to disrupt low centre of gravity, his physical resiliency, his dribbling ability, or even his fabled left foot - it was his brain. His genius was not unlike that which one finds in chess grandmasters; whereas his opponents and teammates could look at a situation and calculate where the ball might be in five seconds, Maradona could look at that same situation and know precisely where the ball would be in ten seconds. His bursts of speed were unlike anything the sport had ever seen, nor has there been anything comparable since, but it wasn't just that he could waltz past defenders like they weren't even there, it was his ability to choose exactly the path he needed to take to put himself in the best possible position after he'd passed them.
As one would expect from Kapadia, the film's aesthetic design is exceptional. The opening scene is especially attention-grabbing - set to a pounding disco soundtrack, the film begins with what appears to be a car chase through the streets of Naples. Racing through narrow streets at breakneck speeds, the scene is shot from within one of the cars, and is intercut with snippets mapping out Maradona's childhood, his ankle break in September 1983 whilst playing for Barcelona, and his departure for Napoli in 1984. In this sense, the montage and the 'car chase' dovetail into one another, because what we're actually looking at is Maradona's first arrival at Napoli. It's an unexpectedly frenetic opening to a documentary about a footballer, speaking subtly to the excess and fast living to come.
Unlike both Senna (2010) and Amy (2015), Diego Maradona includes both first name and surname in its title, and whilst this might seem like a superficial element, it's actually of huge thematic importance. The film's central conceit is that Diego Maradona was two personas; the quiet, unassuming street kid who just wanted to help his family and have fun (Diego), and the global superstar, with a different Rolex for every day of the week (Maradona). The film posits that Maradona was a construct built by Diego to help him deal with his fame. The problem, however, as several people attest, was that over time, Maradona began to take over from Diego, even away from the cameras, and as Diego receded further into the shadows, Maradona became increasingly unpleasant and self-absorbed. It's a fascinating way into his psychology and a deceptively simple bit of psychoanalysis.
Perhaps wisely, Kapadia doesn't focus on any one incident as breaking Maradona, suggesting instead that his illegitimate son, the 1990 World Cup, the cocaine addiction, the Camorra ties, the suspension, all had a cumulative effect, and it was the totality that nearly destroyed him. However, Kapadia is clear that the downward spiral began in 1986 with the birth of Diego Sinagra, whom he wouldn't acknowledge as his son until 2016. Drawing attention to the media frenzy that resulted, Kapadia draws attention to the fact that his wife, Claudia Villafañel, was pregnant with a child of her own during the scandal. In relation to the Argentina-Italy game, whilst Kapadia is unequivocal that the Napoli fans overreacted, he is also clear that Maradona's calamitous pre-game interview didn't help. In this sense, although Kapadia flirts with the image of Maradona as a man betrayed by an intrusive press and a fickle public, ultimately it presents him as neither hero nor villain, but as someone caught up in a hurricane partly of his own making.
In terms of problems, perhaps the most obvious one is how narrowly focused the film is, with a good 90% set during his tenure at Napoli. For example, the film barely touches on the infamous brawl that Maradona instigated (albeit after he was incessantly provoked) in the 1984 Copa del Rey final contested by Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao, a brawl which involved every player on each team, most of the subs, many of the coaching staff, and even ground staff, and which resulted in the fans throwing objects at the players and at one another, ultimately resulting in 60 injuries, all in front of King Juan Carlos I. Some footage is shown, but there's no context. There's also only the briefest of mentions of the 1994 World Cup, when he failed another drug test (this time for ephedrine) and was sent home in disgrace, never to play for Argentina again. Likewise, there's nothing whatsoever on his coaching career, during which time he took Argentina to the 2010 World Cup. The film also ends on an uncessarily downbeat note, with Maradona overweight and disillusioned, tearfully confessing his many transgressions on Argentinian TV. Such an ending was entirely avoidable given that the man is still alive and seems to be holding his demons at bay.
This aside, however, Diego Maradona is another exceptional documentary from one of the world's finest documentarians. The trump card is splitting Maradona's persona into two constituent parts, mapping out the difference between the person and the cult of personality. Avoiding hagiography, the film paints him as far from perfect, but so too is it a fitting tribute. A man whose hubris and arrogance nearly destroyed him, nothing he did off the pitch will ever nullify his perfection on it. Ultimately, the film is about how exceptionalism can corrupt, with every misstep he made writ large for all to see. Kapadia translates his chaotic career into compelling drama, telling a story about an individual genius which speaks to the volatility and fickleness of fame. But more than that, it charts what can happen when these two elements combine, creating a perfect storm that may allow for moments of transcendent brilliance, but which ultimately exacts a very steep price.
A gift for the fans, especially those of us who have long extolled just how pioneering the show was
Premiering in syndication on January 3, 1993 and ending with the broadcast of its 176th episode on June 2, 1999, the thing that I loved most about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993) was that it was something new for the Star Trek franchise. The Gene Roddenberry-created Star Trek (1966) and Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987) were both shows built around idealism, they were about exploration and diplomacy, about idealised characters, about how hope should never be lost. And then came Deep Space Nine, or, to use a moniker originally intended as derogatory, but which has since been appropriated as a badge of honour by the show's makers and fans, "dark Star Trek". And this moniker was not unearned - look at the sixth season episode "In the Pale Moonlight (1998)", regarded by some (myself included) as the finest hour of the entire Star Trek franchise, and by others as the episode where DS9 most egregiously violated the edicts of Roddenberry's creation; an episode in which Capt. Benjamin Sisko (the legendary Avery Brooks) lies, cheats, cajoles, and is a party to murder to ensure the Romulans join the Dominion War. And if that isn't bad enough, not only does he admit in his personal log that he would do it all again if he had to, he then erases the log entirely. This was psychological territory which raised the kind of moral questions one simply never encountered when dealing with such idealised characters as James T. Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard.
Although created by Rick Berman and Michael Piller, the real creative force was executive producer and lead writer Ira Steven Behr. Long before the Second Golden Age of Television, DS9 occupied a fascinating middle-ground between episodic storytelling and the serialisation format employed by most shows today. This is one of the reasons why it has proved so popular on Netflix in recent years - it lends itself to watching six or seven episodes at a time so as to get a better sense of the overarching narrative tapestry, a tapestry which TOS, TNG, and Star Trek: Voyager (1995) simply didn't have.
All of which brings us to What We Left Behind: Looking Back at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a partly fan-funded documentary directed by Behr and David Zappone. The first point, and one that I simply can't over-emphasise, is that it's worth the price of admission just for the 22 minutes of clips in glorious HD. TOS and TNG have already had their 1080p conversions, but DS9 has only ever been seen in 480i. With that in mind, the documentary offers a unique opportunity for fans to see parts of the show in full HD. Obviously, the space stuff looks truly amazing, with the epic battle scenes from "Sacrifice of Angels (1997)" standing up against anything you'd see in a big budget movie in terms of scope and elaborateness. However, even the smaller character moments really pop - the colours are so much richer (especially the reds and blues in the uniforms), the blacks and shadows so much deeper, the makeup more nuanced, the subtlety of background detail more noticeable. In a roundtable with Behr, Zappone, and producer/editors Joseph Kornbrodt and Luke Snailham, shown after the screening I attended, there are some split-screen comparisons between the clips as they originally aired and as they appear in the documentary, and it's like watching a completely different show.
The film begins with the cast reading extracts from some of the criticisms aimed at the show in its early years (how could it "boldly go" when it couldn't go anywhere, boldly or otherwise). And whilst these criticisms are played for laughs, Behr and Zappone don't shy away from looking at some of the more painful moments - Avery Brooks being forbidden from having a goatee and a shaved head, so as not to appear, to quote then Paramount Television chairman Kerry McCluggage, "too street"; Rick Berman not understanding why Behr wanted to introduce a war storyline, and later complaining that the show had become too violent; Terry Farrell asking to be written out of the show with only one season left because she felt she was being mistreated behind the scenes; the entire cast (except Colm Meaney) not being happy with the arrival of TNG's Michael Dorn in the fourth season; the psychological toll that playing Benny Russell in the sixth season masterpiece that is "Far Beyond the Stars (1998)" took on Avery Brooks.
The film also spends a lot of time looking at some of the series' more politically charged moments. Star Trek has always done political themes very well, but whereas TOS and TNG tended to operate via allegory and metaphor, DS9 was more direct. Terrorism, for example, was built into the show's DNA in the character of Major Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor), a former member of the Bajoran Resistance who had waged a guerrilla war against the Cardassian forces during the Occupation of Bajor, with the show depicting her as suffering from PTSD and crippling survivor guilt. It also reminds us how PTSD was addressed when Nog (Aron Eisenberg) lost a leg in battle. The film presents several military vets attesting how much it spoke to them to see DS9 handling such weighty themes with dignity and grace.
Another important theme was racism, which was addressed many times, but never more explicitly or more successfully than in "Far Beyond the Stars", which is set in 1953, depicting a writer, Benny Russell (played by Brooks), whose science fiction short stories are pulled from publication when word gets out that he's black, leading to what is hands down the most emotionally devastating and powerfully acted moment in the franchise's history. In relation to LGBTQ+ issues, the film points to the lesbian kiss in "Rejoined (1995)" and the long-rumoured but never confirmed theory that Garak (Andrew Robinson) was gay. Indeed, in relation to inclusivity, Behr laments that the show could have done better, arguing that one kiss and one rumour over seven years wasn't enough.
Elsewhere, an issue that illustrates just how little acknowledgement the show has gotten is the importance of black characters. DS9 was not the first TV show with a black lead, that was A Man Called Hawk (1989) (which starred none other than Avery Brooks), but it was the first show to regularly feature scenes with only black characters. When discussing this aspect of the show, Behr is unable to contain his frustration when he relates how an episode of That's So 90s (2012) pointed to Homicide: Life on the Street (1993) as being the first show to feature scenes of all black characters, never even mentioning DS9.
And with that said, if the film has an overriding theme, it's vindication; the sense that the choices the showrunners made, choices which were criticised and often not understood, have stood the test of time, with the show rightfully thought of today as unusually mature and progressive. Another example of this vindication concerns the three-part second season opener; "The Homecoming (1993)", "The Circle (1993)", and "The Siege (1993)". The first three-episode arc in Star Trek history, the idea was met with considerable resistance, with Paramount execs arguing that a three-parter would never work. However, as the show would go on to prove time and again (ultimately doing an unprecedented ten-episode arc in the last season), being on a space station rather than a ship lent itself to multi-episode storylines.
And one final point. The reveal of the "greatest moment in the history of DS9", which comes during the closing credits, is one of the most epic examples of Rickrolling you'll ever see (albeit with a DS9 twist).
In terms of problems, the most egregious example is the absence of Avery Brooks (there is some interview footage, but it's archival). This leaves a massive lacuna in the film, not just in a practical sense, but in an emotional one as well; he was the heart of the show (and the only actor to appear in all 176 episodes), so for him not to feature is massively disappointing. However, in the years after the show went off the air, Brooks (a tenured Professor of Theatre at Rutgers) has gradually retired from film and TV acting whilst also appearing at fewer and fewer Star Trek events, and obviously, Behr was unable to persuade him to appear here. Another problem is that with Behr conducting the interviews, there's a sense in which he lets both Berman and McCluggage off too easily, especially in relation to the Terry Farrell situation. Another small problem is that Behr occasionally "stops" the film to intercut scripted moments, usually involving himself. As the director and primary subject, this technique crosses the line into self-indulgence, and although the scenes are supposed to be humorous, they're nowhere near as funny as the off-the-cuff moments elsewhere, and are both structurally awkward and thematically unnecessary.
That aside, however, What We Left Behind is an exceptional documentary. DS9's reputation as the "dark Star Trek" is not unearned, but as the film reminds us, it was often bleak but never cynical, often pessimistic but never nihilistic. On the contrary, what the film does especially well is remind us just how humanistic the show really was, and that any bleakness or darkness was earned by the contrasting moments of levity and humanity, by the depth of the characters and their relationships with one another. The film is about what the makers of the show left behind, but so too is it about how the show changed the future of television. The interviews with the cast and crew really drive home just how much it changed their lives, whilst the clips of fans talking about why they love it so much illustrate the extent to which it touched people. And given that Deep Space Nine was so long maligned, considered the "middle child" of the Star Trek family, it's pleasantly ironic that What We Left Behind is about the love which the show has engendered.